RICHMOND -- Hot dog vendors are licensed, and so are taxi drivers. Why not, city leaders here are wondering, require licenses of still another fixture of urban street life?

Beggars may be the next group to come under the domain of government regulation. City Manager Robert C. Bobb has proposed making people who want to panhandle on the streets of Virginia's capital pay a $25 fee for a three-month license.

The idea, which Bobb said is a steal from a similar proposal pending in Martinsburg, W.Va., has sparked a battle here between city officials who think that beggars are a public menace and civil libertarians who say the regulation is inhumane at best, unconstitutional at worst.

"Panhandlers have become much more aggressive, and they can be quite intimidating," said Bobb, who said the ordinance will better enable police to stop those beggars who harass passersby.

"It sounds like an outrageous violation of what we assume to be a constitutional right to free speech and assembly," countered Kent Willis of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"There is a fundamental right to beg in this country -- not to harass -- but to panhandle," he said.

Under Bobb's proposal, panhandlers would be free to plea for spare change, as the Supreme Court has said they are entitled to do. First, however, they would have to pay their fee at city hall, where they'd be given a permit to be displayed at all times while begging. Recognized charities would be exempt.

Panhandling -- defined to include other activities, such as unsolicited window-washing of cars stopped at intersections -- would be prohibited within 50 feet of entrances to retail shops. People who have been convicted of crimes involving the use of force would not be granted licenses.

If the City Council approves Bobb's measure on Dec. 10, panhandling without a permit would be a misdemeanor punishable by jail time. But Bobb said the intent is to refer illegal beggars to city social workers for assistance in getting welfare and other forms of public or private aid.

Although their proposals are similar, Martinsburg and Richmond have slightly different rationales for their begging ordinances.

Martinsburg Mayor Tony Senecal said the license is intended to be a bureaucratic hurdle that most panhandlers won't jump -- allowing the streets to be swept clean of beggars.

As for where Richmond panhandlers would get $25 to pay for a license, "We'll have enough do-gooders around who will pay the fee for them," Bobb said.

"I think the idea has some merit," said Richmond council member Geline Williams, as long as the proposal can pass constitutional muster. "The idea is to protect people from arrogant aggression."

But at least one council member, Democrat Henry W. "Chuck" Richardson, predicted that Bobb's proposal would be defeated -- and vowed that he will lead the way.

Panhandling isn't a particularly severe problem in Richmond, Richardson argued. "It's using a sledgehammer to kill a fly," he said.

Worse yet, Richardson said, "It criminalizes poverty, it stigmatizes people who are victims."

Echoes of the debate among council members are already being heard on Richmond streets. "I don't think it's fair," said Kathy Jones, who works for a cleaning service. "Most of these people are eating out of the trash anyway. Why shouldn't they be able to just take it if someone's got some change to spare?"

But Jones's friend, Joe Evans, who pays $225 a year for a license to sell souvenirs on Broad Street, believes that permits on display might help some panhandlers improve profits by giving them an imprimatur of officialdom.

"It might encourage people to give," Evans said. "They could see that {a beggar} has a license and that he needs the money."

However, applicants for a Richmond beggar's license would not have to prove they really are needy to qualify.