- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The multibillion-dollar transportation plan Virginia lawmakers approved earlier this year is a constitutional train wreck that sells out the party’s basic tenets of low taxation and less government, a group of Republicans says.

“This is an ongoing massacre,” Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William County Republican, told The Washington Times this week. “Blood has been drawn and the incumbents sure are going to take the biggest heat. . .. If the Republican leadership thinks they can get out of this unscathed by shutting their eyes and hoping it goes away, it is not going to work.”

Mr. Marshall is one of 18 plaintiffs in a sweeping constitutional challenge filed last week in Richmond Circuit Court by former state Republican Party Chairman Patrick M. McSweeney.

At a press conference in Richmond yesterday, Mr. McSweeney outlined the 13-count lawsuit, while four anti-tax advocates chided Republican leaders for supporting what they consider a “fundamentally flawed” policy and a “stunningly inept … political strategy going into an election.”

Election Day is Nov. 6 and all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election.

“To me this is the antithesis of conservative principles,” said Paul Jost, chairman of the Virginia Club for Growth. “This is the sort of thing we have been working against all these years.”

John Taylor, president of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, said if Republicans hoped the plan would help them woo voters in Northern Virginia’s Democrat-leaning suburbs, the region’s outcry against the new abuser fee program suggests the strategy has backfired.

“I don’t suspect it helped them in Northern Virginia and I suspect it hurt them in a lot ofother places,” Mr. Taylor said. “While I don’t think a lot of conservatives will go to the polls and vote for Democrats, I do think it is a likely scenario that conservatives don’t go to the polls on Election Day.”

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the plan’s major revenue streams — from the unpopular fees against Virginia drivers to new taxing powers given to unelected transportation authorities in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

“The lawsuits are important because I do think there are constitutional problems with parts of the bill,” said Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick, Prince William County Republican and an opponent of the plan. Mr. Frederick is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I don’t really care how we get to the end result, but I do hope that Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s (NVTA) ability to raise taxes is deemed unconstitutional.”

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, told The Times this week he is confident NVTA’s power to raise seven new local taxes and fees it approved last month for roads will pass constitutional muster.

“The facts are that some of us raised the question and we were assured by the [attorney general’s] staff that it was constitutional,” he said.

With the election coming up, the fallout from the transportation deal has Democrats and Republicans scrambling to craft a message that wins over voters.

Republicans are expected to highlight other aspects of the plan, including new land-use reforms, and that the plan does not include a statewide tax increase.

Democrats are poised to tell voters the “abuser fee” program shows what Virginians receive under Republican leadership.

Most of the backlash against the transportation deal has focused on the stiff driver penalties, which range from $750 for driving on a suspended license to $3,000 for driving-related felonies.

The fees, which are imposed solely against Virginia drivers, were deemed unconstitutional in district courts in Henrico County and Richmond.

On Monday, a Circuit Court judge in Henrico County overturned the lower court’s ruling, saying the fees must be upheld “if there is any conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis” for the law, and the court is not responsible for judging “the wisdom, fairness or logic of legislative choices.”

Additional legal challenges are pending in Arlington, where a U.S. Navy veteran faces a reckless-driving charge and a $1,050 fee for driving 20 mph over the speed limit near the Pentagon, and in Roanoke, where an 81-year-old on a fixed income was cited on nearly identical charges.

Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax County Republican who is not seeking re-election, said this week the package will survive the legal storm. He also said voters may be able take some solace in the old adage: “People who love the law or good sausage should never watch either being made.”

“This is a classic example of sausage-making,” he said. “You don’t want to see it happen.”