In Virginia, Which Is More 'Abusive'?

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Like most Virginians, I'm not a litigious person. After being rear-ended by a distracted driver last year, I didn't threaten a personal injury claim and asked only that my repair expenses be covered. Little did I know that less than 15 months later, I'd be a plaintiff against the Commonwealth of Virginia in a transportation-related lawsuit filed Aug. 6.

No, Gov. Tim Kaine didn't slam into my back bumper. House Speaker Bill Howell didn't key my car. But they might as well have, as their transportation tax-hike package -- the one laced with the much-hated abusive-driver fees -- will do serious damage to my wallet. I'm fighting back with 17 other citizens in a case challenging the law's constitutional basis.

In April, Kaine signed the Comprehensive Transportation Funding and Reform Act of 2007, a hodgepodge measure that imposed new taxes and fees worth $1 billion; okayed $3 billion in bonds without voter approval; and authorized unelected "transportation authorities" in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to levy even more taxes. Thanks to this last move, Northern Virginia residents such as myself will soon face $300 million in new taxes, including a grantors tax on home sales.

Equally alarming, the law created new "civil remedial fees" for traffic offenses to be levied on top of existing fines. Even smaller infractions, such as speeding 1 to 9 mph over the limit three times within five years, could cost hundreds of dollars. State troopers are in essence being turned into tax collectors.

The gut instinct of many Virginians was that these taxes and fees were unfair, arbitrary, excessive and rejected in a 2002 referendum. The public outcry has been so great that one petition against the fees has nearly 200,000 signatories. Nonetheless, intense public dissatisfaction isn't always enough to reverse a law, which is why we launched our lawsuit. Among our 13 contentions:

· Virginia's constitution allows the allocation of taxing powers only to directly elected legislative bodies and units of government (such as counties or cities). Yet this law leaves the ability to tax with two unelected regional authorities.

· To incur debt to be repaid through general taxes, the commonwealth must identify the resulting projects and secure a majority vote in a statewide ballot measure. The law authorizes $3 billion of debt in violation of these requirements.

· Virginia's constitution prohibits the imposition of excessive fines, and the harsh remedial fees can top $3,000. The fees can't be adjusted for individual circumstances, thereby trampling state and federal due process.

· Out-of-state drivers are exempt from paying the bad-driver penalties, an infringement of the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.

So far, judges at the county and district court levels have found the bad-driver fees unconstitutional, while last week a circuit court judge ruled in favor of the fees. Given the differing opinions, we're expecting our case to end up at the Virginia Supreme Court. In the meantime, we've started a letter-writing campaign to the governor and the General Assembly asking them to convene a special session and repeal this law. Virginians need to keep pressing for transportation solutions that don't rely on more taxes or fees. Unlike the damage caused by other drivers, reckless lawmaking is not covered under collision insurance.

-- Kristina Rasmussen

Alexandria

The writer is director of government affairs for the nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union. She will answer questions at 2 p.m. Tuesday onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com.


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