Va. Takes Step Toward Repeal of Costly Bad Driver Fees

By | January 18, 2008

The costly bad-driving fees on Virginians took a first step toward repeal in a chaotic proceeding this week, barely six months after they took effect.

Lawmakers, however, stripped the bill of reimbursements for people who have already paid the surcharge before the Senate Courts of Justice Committee unanimously advanced it.

The punitive fees took effect in July as part of last year’s transportation funding law. Virginians were outraged when they learned that nonresidents don’t pay them.

Chastened lawmakers clamored last summer for a repeal, some of them calling for rebating fees already paid plus interest. Sen. R. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, was the first to file legislation (Senate Bill 1). More than 20 other repeal bills have been filed since.

“I never experienced the outcry from the public that I heard on this bill,” Houck told the panel in support of his bill Wednesday. “I think this was a bad policy call on our part.”

Across Virginia, several courts ruled the fees unconstitutional when cases involving the fees came before them.

Last week, in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine — who resisted demands for repealing the fees last summer — called them a failure and urged their quick repeal.

While the courts panel was unified in its zeal to erase the fees from state law, the process bogged down in a confusing succession of conflicting motions and parliamentary inquiries.

Several bills were consolidated into Houck’s measure, raising questions about whether fees that courts have already levied could be excused and about the fastest way to put the repeal into effect.

In nearly an hour of disarray, Democrats and Republicans became testy with each other. Even Democrats, in their new majority, showed exasperation toward one another at times.

“It takes some getting used to,” Senate Majority Leader and panel member Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, said afterward. “We’re still friends, OK? Not a big deal. Y’all are reading too much into it.”

Republicans wanted to attach an emergency clause to the legislation Wednesday to make it effective the instant the governor signs it. Democrats agreed with the need for the clause, but wanted it added later because emergency legislation requires approval by a four-fifths vote in the House and Senate instead of the simple majority other bills require. Saslaw said he wasn’t sure the repeal could muster the necessary 80 percent majority in the House, and the emergency clause failed on a party-line 7-8 vote.

The vote over reimbursements was even more perplexing.

Saslaw said that since the law took effect, courts have assessed about $13 million in fees, which can be paid over three years, and that $4.8 million had actually been collected.

The issue became clearer after the panel’s chief counsel, Steven Benjamin, told the committee that the legislature could not void a penalty already ordered by a court. That meant fees already imposed or those judges may assess until a repeal becomes effective can’t be excused after the fact by a new state law.

The impasse was broken after Houck agreed to have the reimbursement provision stripped from his bill, which now heads to the Finance Committee for an analysis of its effect on the budget.

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