Study Questions Va. Driver Fees, Raising the Possibility of Repeal

By Anita Kumar and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 6, 2007

RICHMOND, Dec. 5 -- Virginia may have to issue more than 300,000 license suspensions to drivers over the next two years for failure to pay the state's abusive-driving fees, according to a government report that may hasten calls for the General Assembly and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to eliminate them.

In the first broad review of the fees since they took effect July 1, state auditors found that they have not affected traffic safety and might not raise as much money as expected. The report describes confusion over which offenses can trigger the fees and indicates that some police officers are choosing not to write tickets for violations that carry the fees.

Auditors working for the General Assembly said they are uncertain about the long-term impacts the fees will have on safety and state revenue, but their report raises questions about whether legislators and Kaine made the right decision in establishing them.

Although he aggressively defended the fees over the summer, Kaine said he is open to getting rid of them. "We heard overwhelmingly people don't like it," Kaine said. "It should at least be changed, maybe eliminated."

The abusive-driver fees, which range from $750 to $3,000 for serious offenses including drunken or reckless driving, were supported by Kaine and members of both parties as a way to avoid raising taxes to pay for $65 million a year in road and transit improvements. But since being implemented, they have generated considerable public opposition.

"I'm concerned that it was a huge public policy mistake," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), a member of the Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability, which sought the report. Houck and other lawmakers have introduced legislation to repeal or modify the fees.

The report, prepared by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, paints a picture of a fee system that is almost out of control, with descriptions of some police officers unwilling to write tickets because they are sympathetic to motorists or wary of too much time in court.

Although there was an increase in arrests for driving under the influence, there was an 11 percent decline in arrests for reckless driving, one of the less-serious offenses that trigger the fees.

The report also shows that thousands of motorists are unwilling or unable to pay the fees. As the fees were approved in February, a person convicted of a felony or misdemeanor driving offense has to pay $250 to $1,050 a year for three consecutive years. If the motorist fails to pay, the Department of Motor Vehicles will suspend the person's driver's license.

The report estimates there could be 137,000 suspensions because of the fees through the end of June. An additional 181,000 suspensions could occur because of the fees in the next fiscal year. State officials said the projections represent a substantial increase over the numbers of suspensions generally issued, but they could not provide exact figures.

Auditors based the estimates on current collection rates, which run at about 5 percent for felony driving convictions and 13 percent for people fined who are driving on a suspended or revoked license. There are about 5.3 million licensed drivers in Virginia.

The report says license suspensions spiked in Michigan after it imposed similar fees in 2003. Since then, the state has issued more than 750,000 suspension notices for failure to pay the fees. The study released yesterday says Michigan is issuing 8,000 to 10,000 license suspensions a week. In Texas, which has similar fees, more than 455,000 suspension orders were issued between 2003 and last year.

Judges in Michigan are pushing for a repeal of the fee because cases of unlicensed motorists, some of whom regularly flee police, are clogging the courts. Legislators are considering the repeal.

Although Kaine and GOP leaders had said that the fees would make Virginia highways safer, the report found that arrests for speeding and driving under the influence have increased in the second half of this year over the same period last year.

Between July 1 and Oct. 31, there were 198 more DUI arrests than in the same period last year. There were also 5,282 more speeding arrests.

The report says there has been a decline in arrests for reckless driving. Some of the drop may be the result of police officers being lenient because they don't want certain motorists to be assessed a fee for abusive driving, the report says.

But any decline in reckless driving is tempered by data from the Virginia State Police that show the state is on pace to record more than 1,000 highway fatalities this year for the first time since 1990.

As lawmakers prepare for a potentially contentious debate in January over the fees, the report is fodder for Democrats in the state Senate who plan to push for a repeal. Houck has introduced a bill to do so.

"We need to get rid of these fees," said Ralph Northam (D), an incoming senator from the Hampton Roads area.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax) said the fees will be a top priority. "You are going to see a ton of bills," said Saslaw, who refused to rule out raising the gas tax to replace the fees.

House Republicans are expected to resist repeal efforts. Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) has introduced a bill to make the fees apply to out-of-state drivers; currently, only Virginia drivers are assessed the fees. The bill would also limit the offenses that would trigger a fee, rewrite the reckless driving statute and give judges more latitude on whether to suspend a license.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said the transportation package, which was designed to increase roads and mass transit funding by $1 billion annually, could unravel if legislators push to repeal the fees. He said some delegates want to get rid of the regional taxing districts in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, which account for the bulk of the funding in the transportation plan.

"If you start taking out one piece, why can't you take out that second piece and then the third piece?" Griffith said. "Before you know it, all that hard work that created the largest increase in transportation funding in history is going to unravel."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company