Va. Enacted Bad-Driver Fees Despite Red Flags

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), center, with House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R), left, and House Speaker William J. Howell (R), defends Virginia's bad-driver fees.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), center, with House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R), left, and House Speaker William J. Howell (R), defends Virginia's bad-driver fees. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)

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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

RICHMOND, July 23 -- Virginia lawmakers imposed steep new fees on bad drivers this year despite warning signs from states with similar programs that they cause a surge in unlicensed motorists and have crippling effects on the poor.

The licenses of tens of thousands of motorists in New Jersey and Michigan have been suspended because they cannot afford the fees, and little evidence has emerged that such fines improve highway safety, according to state officials and studies.

Numerous lawmakers, judges and social activists in both states have sought to either repeal the fees or make major changes in how they are collected. But once the programs are implemented, they are difficult to get rid of, because state lawmakers are unwilling to give up the revenue they raise, judges and lawmakers said.

"I think it is a very destructive piece of legislation that is designed primarily for revenue purposes and is disguised as a highway safety measure," said William C. Buhl, a Circuit Court judge in Van Buren County, Mich. "In my opinion, it increases the dangers on the highways because it creates an enormous, growing pool of unlicensed motorists."

In February, Virginia's Republican-controlled General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to assess fees as high as $3,000, payable over three years, on felony and misdemeanor convictions for such crimes as reckless and drunken driving. Virginia motorists with eight points on their records would have to pay a surcharge of $100 plus $75 for each additional point. Failure to pay results in license suspension.

Lawmakers predicted that the measures, in effect since July 1, would improve highway safety and raise $65 million a year, to be used for new road and rail projects. On Monday, however, Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) joined a growing list of legislators calling for repeal, saying the measures are "beyond repair."

At a news conference last week defending the fees, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said they had no information to suggest that there were problems in states that use such fees.

When Buhl heard that Virginia lawmakers were considering the fees last year, he e-mailed all 140 legislators, explaining why he thought the program was a failure in Michigan, which began assessing the fees in 2003. No one responded, Buhl said.

Officials in Michigan and New Jersey say Virginians should brace for problems, including clogged courts and the prospect of thousands of residents having to choose between keeping their licenses and paying their bills.

"Had any lawmaker in Virginia called me, I would have said, 'Don't do it,' " said Tom Pearce (R-Kent), a state representative in Michigan. "An awful lot of my colleagues would not have voted on these had they understood the unintended consequences."

In 1983, New Jersey became the first state to assess the fees, which range from $300 to $4,500 over three years and pay for insurance for those unable to obtain coverage. The $100 million raised annually goes into the state's general fund.

New Jersey issues about 800,000 license suspension notices a year, a quarter of which result when people are unable to pay the surcharges, according to the New Jersey Treasury Department. A 2001 study by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice found that the suspensions were creating a permanent underclass.


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