The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill Saturday to repeal high fees on state residents for various traffic offenses, and it could take effect in days.
In an abrupt reversal, Senate Republicans who had voted against the measure, denying it the four-fifths majority necessary to make the repeal effective immediately, called the bill up for reconsideration and voted for it.
Eliminating the vilified surcharges was a priority for most lawmakers. The fees became law last year as part of the first comprehensive funding increase for transportation since 1986, enacted to generate $65 million annually for highway maintenance.
When Virginians discovered last spring that nonresidents were not subject to the “civil remedial fees” that were generally $1,000 each and up, they were outraged.
The first Senate bill filed this year, Senate Bill 1 by Sen. R. Edward Houck, was to repeal the fees and refund those already collected.
A repeal became assured in early January when Gov. Timothy M. Kaine conceded that after six months, the fees had failed to approach the estimated revenue yield and that highway deaths had soared in 2007 in spite of them.
Two bills to repeal the fees were before the House and Senate on Saturday for final passage. Houck’s was a simple repeal, but the other was “emergency legislation” that would have made it effective on Kaine’s signature.
Both bills sailed through the House on Saturday with only one dissenting vote.
But in the Senate, Kenneth W. Stolle argued forcefully against it. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach and a lawyer, said that lawmakers had the power to repeal legislation, but they had no constitutional authority to absolve license suspensions against people who have been unable to pay the fees.
“This should not be about what’s politically correct but what’s legally correct,” said Stolle.
His argument persuaded 10 other senators – all fellow Republicans – to oppose the House version of the bill. The subsequent 29-11 vote was three fewer than the 32 yes votes required to pass emergency legislation in the 40-seat Senate. After that came Houck’s bill, which passed on a 30-10 vote.
Less than 30 minutes later, however, Sen. Thomas K. Norment and seven other Republicans had thought better of their politically unpopular votes and brought the bill back for reconsideration. On the do-over, it passed 37-3 with Stolle and fellow Republicans Richard Stuart and John Watkins dissenting.
Houck’s bill, also reconsidered, was passed on the same vote, with the same three senators voting no.