Saturday, August 11, 2007

Virginia’s General Assembly has so far refused to open a special session to reduce onerous new driver penalties. But to judge from several legal challenges now underway, lawmakers may end up ruing the missed opportunity to change things before the transportation compromise falls apart entirely. At a minimum, its clear that more than just the penalties are under fire.

A lawsuit filed this week in Circuit Court in Richmond could upend the entire transportation compromise with a constitutional challenge to the powers of taxation it gave to regional transportation authorities. Meanwhile, within the last two weeks, a Henrico County judge rejected the constitutionality of the driver penalties, an Arlington Navy veteran sued over an outlandish $1,050 fee for driving 20 mph over the limit and yet another lawsuit in Arlington County is challenging the taxing authority of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. The whole transportation compromise between Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and a Republican-led legislature faces a real risk of crashing down in a legal hailstorm. Six months from now, we might be asking why Richmond did not pre-empt all of this.

The constitutional tax-powers challenge comes courtesy of former state Republican Party Chairman Patrick McSweeney, who was joined by several other lawmakers and activists. If the courts hold that regional authorities cannot assess taxes as the plan arranges, then the whole painstaking compromise would need to be reconsidered.

While this is the biggest legal question right now, the driver-penalty issue is the one which truly gets people angry. That issue has rightly galvanized the public. Going 75 in a 55 mph zone is surely ticket-worthy but it is not necessarily “reckless driving” and it is not “abusive.” The law-abiding Arlington Navy veteran is proof of that. We heartily support having government throwing the book at motorists who seemingly have no regard for life or limb. Ordinary drivers who are caught engaging in ordinary speeding are a different story, however. The state should not be in the business of penalizing ordinary behavior with catastrophically large fines.

The odds of a special session look quite low right now. After all, these last few weeks have only witnessed a major public outcry over an obvious trampling of taxpayer rights. If and when judges rule the transportation plan unconstitutional, perhaps finally then we will see some real attention from lawmakers.

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