By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
RICHMOND, July 16 -- An online petition against Virginia's steep new "abusive driver" fees neared 100,000 signatures Monday, accelerating lawmakers' calls for the General Assembly to rescind them before voters go to the polls Nov. 6.
Pointing up the political power of the issue, at one point Monday more than 1,000 people an hour were signing the petition demanding that lawmakers repeal the fees -- some of which can top $1,000 -- or risk being voted out of office.
All 140 Senate and House seats are up for election this fall, and many lawmakers say they are being deluged with comments from constituents opposed to the fees, which are aimed at drunk and reckless drivers.
"Lawmakers have been caught flat-footed," said Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. "They had no idea this would generate so much outrage by such a large number of people. . . . This is a way for many citizens to express discontent with government fees and what people consider to be abuses by government."
The petition [ http://www.petitiononline.com/va3202/] threatens to undermine the bipartisan spirit of cooperation that followed approval of a transportation funding bill, championed by House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
Alexandria resident Bryan T. Ault organized the petition drive.
The $65 million expected to be raised annually from the fees was intended to be a partial substitute for a statewide tax increase, which Kaine supported but the Republican-controlled House opposed.
But the fees, which lawmakers say will affect less than 2 percent of drivers, are generating widespread criticism from both anti-tax conservatives and liberal activists, who say they unfairly affect the poor. Several conservatives said Monday that they fear the issue could cost the Republican Party control of the assembly.
"If people had known what was going on, they would have said they would have rather had a gas tax increase," said petition signer Michael G. Lowe, chairman of the Matthews County Republican Party. "There are a lot of people barely in a situation of being able to pay their bills, and they get into a situation where they get a fine and it becomes involuntary servitude to the state. . . . We have given fodder to everyone who wasn't in the General Assembly and intends to try to get there."
Cognizant of the public outcry, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax) on Monday joined several GOP delegates in requesting that Kaine call a special session of the General Assembly this summer or fall to revisit the issue.
"I think it has gotten people riled up enough, and it is clearly an issue so many Virginians feel strongly about, [that] the governor needs to listen to those people and call us into a special session," said Davis, who being challenged this fall by Democrat J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen.
Howell and Kaine said that a special session is unlikely but vowed that lawmakers will revisit the fees when the assembly convenes in January.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), one of the main proponents of the fees, said he is "totally frustrated" by the opposition.
"If someone else can come up with $65 million that is not a tax increase, I am more than happy to repeal it," said Albo, noting that $65 million a year would finance a bond issue large enough to pay for a project as big as the Springfield Mixing Bowl. "But I bet there would be a petition with 100,000 people on it if we raised the gas tax."
A one-cent increase in the gasoline tax, which has not been raised since 1986, would generate about $50 million a year.
Albo said opposition to the fees has been intense because many people do not understand them.
The fees are assessed on anyone convicted of a felony or misdemeanor driving offense, such as driving under the influence or traveling more than 20 miles over the posted speed limit.
In addition to the fees for misdemeanor and felony traffic convictions, motorists with eight or more points on their driving records will have to pay more. Those drivers have to pay $100 for the eight points and $75 for each additional point. Failure to pay will result in suspension of licenses.
As approved by the General Assembly in February, the fees would have applied to in-state and out-of-state motorists. But Kaine amended the bill to affect only in-state drivers because the state doesn't have the legal authority to charge out-of-state motorists a vehicle fee.
"There are practical reasons why DMV cannot collect fees from drivers licensed by other states," said Kevin Hall, spokesman for the governor. But, Hall added, "We hear you. Folks have legitimate concerns. There will be an opportunity to revisit the matter in January."
Despite Kaine's supporting role in enacting the fees, Democrats say they plan to use the issue against Republicans in the fall campaign.
"This is a result of the Republican position that they won't even consider raising taxes for legitimate needs," said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria). "If the government wants to spend money on an important need like transportation, it takes more money. It doesn't grow on trees."
Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) accused Democrats of playing politics because many of them voted for the transportation bill.
"Leadership is you identify what is wrong with the bill and you fix it," he said. "Leadership is not running around carping like a bunch of teenagers."