By Marc Fisher
Sunday, August 26, 2007
N obody in Richmond predicted that Virginians would rise up in a hot summer snit, cussing and seething over the injustice of spanking the state's most reckless drivers with big, fat fees.
See, the politicians thought they were doing what they do best -- threading the needle of transportation funding to make no one very happy but keep the grumbling to a minimum and sort of get the job done.
But the imposition of abuser fees -- charges that can soar to thousands of dollars for those who get caught driving recklessly or commit other major traffic offenses -- has instead sparked a firestorm that has stunned state legislators. Now, just a few days before they move into full-time campaigning to keep their jobs, many lawmakers still don't get why the abuser fees issue exploded as it has.
Since when do ordinary people take up the cause of offenders such as the 5 percent of drivers who are eligible for abuser fees because of their bad records? Since when do Virginia's supposedly hard-core anti-tax voters slam their lawmakers for avoiding a general tax increase by slipping in fees aimed at some small group?
Well, since the Internet changed the speed and power flow in politics, says Del. David Albo, the Fairfax Republican who finds himself the target of much of the popular rage. Albo has the misfortune to be the guy who pushed through the abuser fees and the double trouble of making his living as a lawyer specializing in traffic cases.
In the wild world of Virginia political blogs, that made Albo Public Enemy No. 1 -- accused of concocting a dishonest way to raise money for transportation projects, making it extra unfair by exempting out-of-state drivers from the fees and topping it off by working in a field in which he stood to profit from an increase in court battles over these fees.
Albo has spent his summer figuring out how this thing ballooned. He says those first blog posts in July inflamed the masses by inaccurately reporting that the new law threatened all Virginia drivers with fees of more than $3,000 for having a bald tire.
"To get that kind of fee, you'd have to literally kill someone," Albo protests. He had interns spend countless hours searching the 174,000 names on an anti-abuser fee online petition to find 750 voters from his district, who then got letters from their delegate spelling out what the law really says. The response to those letters? All of four notes.
To combat the misinformation, Albo created a Web site listing facts about the new law. "As of right now, it has 254 hits," he says. "Versus 200,000 names on the petition against the fees. I can't compete, man. I can't compete with a person who's nameless and faceless and pushes a button and tells people you're going to get an abuser fee if you get a traffic ticket."
Albo, who insists he won't get new business from the abuser fees, says it was a mistake to exclude out-of-state drivers, and that can and will be fixed. Still, he says: "I've never seen anything like this. Normally, people are fine with raising money in a way that doesn't affect everybody."
It's not just politicians who got slammed. The AAA's longtime Washington area honcho, Lon Anderson, has been trying to calm members who are appalled that the drivers' lobby supported these fees. AAA has long opposed mixing policing with fundraising, but Anderson went along with this plan to avoid a gas-tax increase and get money for new roads.
He, too, says the fire was fanned by bloggers hawking an inaccurate version of the law's provisions. "They portrayed this as if you're going to have to pay $1,000 if you're caught going 75 in a 55, when the fact is that only the worst drivers will get hit, and they're the ones who cost us all more on our insurance," he says.
But it was not the mere existence of blogs that created the uproar. As Anderson notes, abuser fees offend our sense of fair play. We despise selfish creeps who get tanked up and kill our children on the highways. But we feel for the struggling parent who gets pulled over for going 76 in a 55 mph zone on I-95 because she was late to pick up her kid at day care.
Yes, a new technology is changing the tempo of politics, which, like life generally, keeps accelerating to levels our grandparents could not imagine. But no, there is nothing new under the sun. Even if bloggers saw this issue as the perfect populist grievance, even if the voters who signed petitions and pledged to throw the bums out did act on misinformation, the bottom line is an old-fashioned one:
People want the folks who represent them to lay it on the line. They crave honesty and rebel against sneakiness and duplicity.
Abuser fees, even if they serve a good social purpose, were not imposed to make roads safer. They were designed to raise money because the politicians could not bring themselves to pass a genuine, aboveboard tax increase.
The abuser fees managed to unite left and right, Democrats and Republicans in common outrage.
"This feels sneaky, it feels underhanded, it's too 'professional politician,' " says Alexandria-based Republican consultant Craig Shirley. "People would have preferred a straight-up debate on taxes. The Internet is making people more and more comfortable with pushing back against their government, but this response is classic Virginia. It's been part of our culture for hundreds of years to not let government step on us."
"Call it what it is: a tax increase," says Democratic consultant Mudcat Saunders, who is based in Roanoke and is working for presidential candidate John Edwards. "This is all about lack of trust in government. Now the politicians react by telling the voters they're ignorant. No! You don't ever tell voters they don't understand."
Even if the common reading of the abuser fees is based on inaccuracies, the fees feel unfair, and unfair loses every time. A bunch of legislators may have to learn that the hard way.