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.
Under pressure to repeal the fees, the state commissioned a study last year that found that although only 16 percent of residents live in low-income areas, those neighborhoods house nearly 40 percent of the people whose licenses have been suspended for failure to pay fees and fines.
The commission recommended increasing the amount of time to pay, a proposal under consideration by the legislature. But the commission stopped short of saying that the fees should be scrapped.
"The commission set up was not comfortable recommending the program be dissolved, largely because it's an integral part of New Jersey's finance system," said Jon Carnegie, who was a principal investigator for the commission.
Virginia Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who helped develop the state's abusive-driver law, said he was unaware of the study and received only "glowing reports" from New Jersey officials about how the fees have made roads safer there. Albo said he did not remember getting an e-mail from Buhl.
Cathleen Lewis, a New Jersey motor vehicle agency spokeswoman, said there is no way to determine whether the fees "conclusively impact highway safety."
In Michigan, traffic fatalities declined 12 percent from 2003 to 2005, compared with a 2.2 percent increase nationwide during that period, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A spokesman for the Michigan State Police said it is too early to tell whether the decline can be attributed to the fees.
Michigan motorists convicted of some misdemeanors and felonies must pay between $500 and $1,000 for consecutive years in addition to a fine and court costs. Michigan drivers with seven points on their licenses must pay $100, then $50 for each additional point.
The Michigan fees are supposed to raise $80 million to $100 million annually. But the state has a collection rate of 40 percent because so many people cannot afford to pay them, state officials said.
A bill in the Michigan legislature, sponsored by Sen. John J. Gleason (D-Genesee), aims to repeal the fees. But Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) said through a spokesman that the state, which has a projected budget deficit of $1.8 billion, cannot afford to repeal them. The fees are also being challenged in Michigan's Supreme Court.
Michigan has issued 750,000 suspension notices for failure to pay the fees since they went into effect in October 2003.
In December, Buhl and three other Michigan judges told a legislative committee that the state's unlicensed motorists are increasing in number and are regularly fleeing police. Once caught, they face another round of fees they cannot afford.
Several judges in Michigan are taking matters into their own hands by lessening the charges for some motorists so that the fees are not triggered.
"We are trying our best to get them past this rather than impose another $1,000 fine on them, or they would never drive. They would just be poor forever," said District Court Judge Roger J. La Rose, who presides in suburban Detroit.
In Virginia, Henry County Commonwealth's Attorney Bob Bushnell said state prosecutors are bracing for similar problems.
"The way this thing works out, it is going to have an absolutely ruinous effect on financially challenged Virginians," he said. "To my knowledge, no one from the police was consulted. We weren't consulted. The court clerks weren't consulted. Had it come up, I think the General Assembly would have been aware of all kinds of concerns from Virginians about the unanticipated downside to this program."
Staff researcher Robert W. Lyford contributed to this report.