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Panel to tackle abuser fee ‘mess’

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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.

"We are absolutely baffled by the actions of the Democratic majority today," Mr. Cuccinelli said. "By voting against adding an emergency clause to the abolition of the fees, they only perpetuate this monstrosity."

Should the plan pass both chambers in its existing form, Mr. Kaine could in April propose another repeal date, which would require majority support from both chambers.

"I would be shocked if he didn"t," Mr. Saslaw said. "I mean he called for the repeal in his State of the Commonwealth address, and he indicated that we made a big mistake and we need to correct it."

•••

Overworked animal control officers won't be getting any additional volunteers to help them investigate cases of neglect and cruelty.

The House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources tabled legislation yesterday that would have restored the state's humane investigator program, which was suspended in 2003. Investigators already serving were allowed to continue, but no new ones were permitted.

Donald Morro of Virginia Voters for Animal Welfare said only about a half-dozen volunteer humane investigators remain from a force that peaked at about 40 a few years ago.

Delegate David Albo's bill is one of many animal welfare measures that have been introduced in the aftermath of the Michael Vick dogfighting case and an investigation by the Humane Society of the United States that found nearly 1,000 "puppy mills" in Virginia.

"We have to either put more money into animal control officers or find another way," Mr. Albo, Fairfax Republican, told the committee.

But opponents reminded legislators that the program was suspended because of abuses by some investigators. They also said the volunteers lacked adequate training and supervision.

•••

If Delegate Jennifer McClellan's cat-equality bill has nine lives, it might need them all to survive the Virginia legislative process.

The Richmond Democrat's bill would make stealing a cat a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Current law says catnapping is punishable by up to a year in jail. But stealing someone's dog gets you slapped with a Class 5 felony and up to 10 years in prison.

Miss McClellan presented the legislation to a House of Delegates subcommittee for the second time yesterday. And again, it wasn't easy. But she and other lawmakers scratched out a final draft acceptable to the subcommittee.

The bill applies only to "companion cats" owned, fed and cared for by an individual, animal shelter or animal-rescue organization.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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