The summer driving season has drawn to a close, but the political heat wave over Virginia’s new “abusive driver” fees and transportation taxes shows little sign of abating.
An online petition against the fees, which can exceed $3,000, has collected more than 175,000 signatures, and numerous legal cases are challenging the fees’ and taxes’ constitutionality.
The legislation containing the fees and taxes (House Bill 3202) was passed by the Republican-led General Assembly earlier this year and signed by Gov. Tim Kaine (D).
The bill, which recently began phasing in, was an attempt to raise revenues for transportation spending in advance of the November elections. Virginians vote on state candidates in odd-numbered years.
“Going into the last General Assembly session, the common wisdom in the GOP was that a transportation bill had to be passed to prevent Republicans from losing seats in northern Virginia,” said John Taylor, president of the Virginia-based free-market advocacy organization Tertium Quids. “It is telling that … the same legislators who voted for the transportation bill only four months ago are now trying to distance themselves from it.”
According to Taylor, “that is because their constituents are verbally beating them around the head and ears for voting for the transportation bill. [The legislation] reflects a political ineptness that is truly stunning in an election year.”
Unelected ‘Authorities’ Hike Taxes
The Comprehensive Transportation Funding and Reform Act of 2007 created new fees and taxes totaling $1 billion, authorized $3 billion in bonds, and created unelected “Transportation Authorities” in northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area with the controversial power to levy additional local taxes.
The two Authorities have since opted to impose burdens of $300 million and $168 million, respectively, on taxpayers.
“The delegation of taxing power to an unelected body sets a very dangerous precedent,” noted Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas), an opponent of the Authorities. “Why not set up a vast multitude of ‘Authorities’ with unelected and unaccountable political appointees who can impose taxes for any purpose? Why have a General Assembly or elected local governments?”
Of all the miscellaneous revenue-raisers in the transportation bill, nothing has received more attention than the large “civil remedial fees” that took effect July 1.
Examples of these deceptively named levies include: $750 for driving on a suspended license, $1,050 for reckless driving (for example, driving 20 miles per hour or more over the speed limit), $3,000 for driving-related felonies, and $900 for other traffic misdemeanors. The fees cannot be reduced by a judge and apply to Virginia drivers only.
Minor Violations Hit Hard
Promoters of the fees argue the fines will affect only bad drivers, but as Richard Diamond of TheNewspaper.com, which covers transportation issues, explains, “It simply is not true that minor violations don’t qualify for the fees, despite what they have said. Get two ordinary speeding tickets, you pay the fees.”
A combination of minor violations can bring on the higher fees, especially since related license “points” can remain on a motorist’s record for years.
Supporters of the transportation bill in the General Assembly have been criticized for potential conflicts of interest, as many–including Delegate and sponsor David Albo (R-Springfield)–are employed by law firms specializing in representing traffic offenders.
Officials with the state judiciary expect a flood of new cases as drivers tagged with expensive fees fight them in court.
Virginia is not the first state to experiment with high driver fees. New Jersey and Michigan also have used stiff penalties as a way to encourage safer driving.
However, officials in those states have run into serious collection issues. According to a Washington Post article, Michigan’s fines were supposed to raise $80 million to $100 million every year, but the state can collect only 40 percent of the fees because many people can’t afford to pay them.
Several lawsuits challenging the fees and taxes on constitutional grounds are winding through Virginia’s legal system.
Judges at the county and district court levels have found the driver fines unconstitutional, but a circuit court judge has ruled in favor of the fees. Given the differing opinions, it is likely the Virginia Supreme Court will have to rule on the matter.
Supervisors from Loudoun County, which is included in the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, voted to appeal a court decision affirming the Authority’s power to tax, while Poquoson Mayor Gordon Helsel, whose town is subject to the Hampton Roads Transportation Authority, is considering a constitutional challenge as well.
Kaine has declined to call a special session to address concerns over the transportation funding package. House Speaker William Howell (R-Stafford) has pledged to pass a bill that would make the fees applicable to out-of-state drivers, but this is unlikely to soothe the outrage caused by the sheer size of the fees, and it wouldn’t address the tax authority issues.
The Virginia General Assembly is scheduled to meet next in January 2008. Unless HB 3202 is struck down in court, lawmakers will almost certainly face a long, “hot” winter in Richmond, and perhaps an especially uncomfortable autumn at the polls.
Kristina Rasmussen ([email protected]) is director of government affairs for the National Taxpayers Union. She is also a plaintiff in one of the constitutional challenges to HB 3202.
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