The Virginia Senate rejected a bid last week to allow people already ordered to pay state abusive driver fees to go back to court and ask a judge to excuse the penalty.
The floor amendment by Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, set up a partisan clash with the Senate’s majority Democrats over legislation to repeal the unpopular, punitive fees that took effect nearly seven months ago.
The amendment died on a 21-17 party line vote, but another amendment — one that would make the bill effective the instant Gov. Timothy M. Kaine signs it — was unanimously approved.
The General Assembly enacted the fees last year as part of the first major transportation funding package in a generation. When Virginians discovered last spring that surcharges of up to $3,000 that they would have to pay would not apply to nonresidents, they were livid. With last fall’s House and Senate elections approaching, legislators from both parties clamored for their swift repeal.
Any efforts to salvage the fees were effectively doomed earlier this month when Kaine said they had failed either to make highways safer or come close to meeting revenue projections.
As the bill advances to a final Senate vote, it still lacks a provision for rebating fees already paid or excusing fees assessed by a court but not yet paid.
While Republicans and Democrats generally agree on some form of reimbursement, neither they nor legislative attorneys and policy analysts have agreed on a method they believe is legal, Sen. R. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, said in an interview.
“They’re still researching the relief piece of this,” said Houck, sponsor of the repeal bill. “It’s a technical, legal question, but there’s still time for cool, legal heads to agree on something in a nonpartisan way.”
A partisan divide was clear in last Friday’s edgy floor debate. Stolle, a lawyer who chaired the Senate Courts of Justice Committee when the GOP controlled the Senate last year, argued that the legislature can’t rescind a judicial order.
“Give me just one example where a court has ordered anyone to pay a fine or a fee and the state has come along afterward and said you don’t have to pay it,” Stolle said.
“That’s not the point,” countered Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, a Richmond lawyer who succeeded Stolle as Courts chairman. “The point is whether the state can refuse to collect a debt.”
Stolle also argued that some people — drunken drivers, those convicted of vehicular homicide — should have to pay the fees, something his amendment would have allowed.
“It would be terrible policy for the commonwealth to adopt a refund policy for people who got behind the wheel after drinking or who took the life of another,” he said.
Democrats claimed Stolle’s amendment would be burdensome because people would have to find time to go back to court, sometimes in a locality far from home, with a lawyer in tow.
“This is another lawyer’s relief act, and we’ve got to reject it and move on,” said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and a lawyer.
Even the proposal to add the emergency clause to the legislation provoked partisan sniping. When Houck endorsed the amendment and urged its adoption, Republican Sen. Thomas K. Norment sought to upbraid Houck for opposing the emergency clause when it was before the Courts committee earlier.
At the time, Houck said he preferred to add the clause later for tactical reasons. Bills designated as emergencies require a four-fifths vote in both the House and Senate to pass instead of the simple majority regular bills require. Houck said then that he was unsure the measure could muster such a majority, but his concerns were allayed earlier this week when the House passed a similar bill 95-2.