- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2008

RICHMOND — A meeting yesterday of the General Assembly’s Senate Courts of Justice Committee showed just how much lawmakers have turned on the “abuser fees” they have imposed on Virginia drivers.

Eleven of the 40 bills before the committee were related to the fees, and the sponsors were Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives from across the state.

“I think this is an opportunity for the legislature to clean up its mess,” said Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat and a bill sponsor.

Committee members approved one bill to repeal the fees and one to increase the gas tax from 17.5 cents to 20 cents a gallon. The money would help cover the estimated $65 million annually the fees would have generated for highway maintenance.

Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Fairfax Republican, opposes increasing the gas tax and called for a “straight repeal.”

Democrats acknowledged the increase, which could generate $125 million a year, would face intense scrutiny should it reach the House. But they said the state needs the money for road maintenance.

“Sooner or later, these people are going to be riding on dirt instead of roads that are going to be paved,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat.

Both bills now go to the Senate Finance Committee.

The fees — which range from $750 to $3,000 and are imposed on felony- and misdemeanor-driving offenses — were part of the multibillion-dollar transportation deal the Republican-controlled Assembly and Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, approved last year.

Since then, nearly 180,000 people have signed an online petition to repeal the fees.

Most of the 11 bills considered yesterday by the committee were identical, reflecting lawmakers’ efforts to respond to the public backlash and their desire to win praise for repealing the law.

“I”ll claim credit back home no matter what happens,” Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, Fairfax Republican and repeal supporter, said jokingly.

The committee spent nearly two hours debating whether to refund motorists already charged, when the repeal should kick in, and what could survive a vote by the House.

Republicans criticized Democrats on the committee for not adding a clause to the repeal bill that, provided it gained support of 80 percent of lawmakers in both chambers, would make the change effective when the governor signs it.

Such a change usually takes effect July 1.

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