Starting today, Virginia drivers are in for one of the region’s most egregious money grabs in a long time. Authorities are slated to begin imposing a jaw-dropping $1,050 “abuser fee” on drivers registered in-state who are caught speeding 20 or more mph over the limit. It was tucked into the state transportation bill and passed quietly by the General Assembly months ago, with very little notice.
Any Washington-area driver knows that in some stretches of the Beltway, it is quite common for motorists to cruise along at 70 -75 mph in 55 mph zones. In some cases, this is what it takes to keep up with traffic. Under Virginia state law, however, this is right on the cusp of a reckless driving charge. A absurd fee is now being imposed in the name of public safety and budgetary sense.
This is a colossal abuse of public trust well before it is either a safety boon or a budgetary salve. Certainly it will be a major financial hardship on low- and middle-income motorists. We do not object to the idea of sin taxes in principle. In the present case, most of the changes slated that take effect today are appropriate, such as a $2,250 fee for a first-time DWI, payable over two years. Drunk driving is a serious offense requiring serious punishment — and too often the consequences are fatal.
But $1,050 for driving 20 mph over the speed limit is predatory, tax-and-spend government at its worst. For families in the middle or at the bottom of the economic ladder, this reaches 4 percent and 5 percent of annual take-home income. Government is supposed to serve the people, not fine and tax them toward the poor house for what amounts to ordinary behavior.
The story of how Virginia got here goes something like this: Downstate Republicans have repeatedly refused to compromise with Northern Virginia over transportation funding. This led Northern Virginia lawmakers to view fees as the only means of balancing revenue and spending. Not wanting to pass unpopular tax increases or cut rapidly growing but allegedly untouchable unrelated programs, lawmakers in Richmond quietly tucked this into a transportation bill. They now have the gall to complain that no one criticized the plan earlier. Meanwhile, some are calling this the “Lawyer Full Employment Act of 2007.” Little wonder, since some of the idea’s backers work for law firms, which will see more business as these fines increase the court caseloads.
Contempt for ordinary people is the spirit of this kind of governance. It views Virginians as lemmings, economic entities to be herded, taxed and fined into submission. Voters should not stand for it, not for a second.