- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — Legislation to end the punitive fees on dangerous drivers cleared its final Senate committee yesterday en route to a floor vote, but reimbursements for those who already have paid them aren’t along for the ride.

The Senate Finance Committee consolidated several bills to end the fees into Sen. R. Edward Houck’s Senate Bill 1, stripping from them provisions to rebate fees collected since the law took effect July 1.

“I think the public of Virginia has cried out and said, ‘foul ball!’ You all did something in the General Assembly — I did it, I confess, I’m as guilty as the next person — that I think we crossed the line on public trust,” said Mr. Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat.

Virginians were outraged last spring when they discovered that fees that can easily top $1,000 over three years would not apply to nonresidents. Chastened legislators immediately clamored for its repeal.

Gov. Tim Kaine had resisted calls for repeal until earlier this month when he conceded that the fees had failed to make state highways safer or come close to generating the forecast $65 million a year in revenue.

The first repeal bill to get a floor vote passed 95-2 Tuesday in the House. Among those who supported it were Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican and sponsor of the abusive-driver legislation passed last year as part of the first comprehensive transportation funding in a generation.

Mr. Albo offered a bill this year to salvage the fees — tightening and better defining the list of offenses to which they apply and subjecting out-of-state drivers to them. It remains alive, but Mr. Albo said yesterday that he has abandoned it because a repeal is now inevitable.

“But with the repeal, they’re going to realize I’m not as stupid as they thought because now they’re looking at a big fat gas tax increase” to supplant lost fee collections, Mr. Albo said in an interview.

Mr. Houck and other Senate patrons of repeal bills agreed on a single, undiluted repeal bill to optimize its chances of passing swiftly. Senators briefly considered adding an “emergency clause,” which would have made the law effective immediately upon Mr. Kaine’s signature. The idea was dropped, however, because emergency legislation requires four-fifths support in both the House and Senate to pass rather than a simple majority.

Mr. Houck said he was unsure whether the legislation could muster the necessary 80 percent support in the House, and that the designation could be added later with less risk.

House Republicans yesterday said Mr. Houck’s concern was unfounded and noted Tuesday’s vote as proof.

The abusive-driver fees generated far less revenue than expected. Last year, legislative estimates were that courts would assess about $82 million a year in fees and that about $65 million would be collected. The fees were enacted as civil remedial fees rather than fines so they could be earmarked for highway maintenance. The state Constitution reserves fines for educational purposes.

After six months, however, courts had assessed only about $13 million in abusive driver fees and collected only about $4 million of that.

“Not only have we violated the public trust, but we’ve also created false expectations for ourselves of a revenue stream that’s simply not there,” Mr. Houck said.

Courts are assessing the fees at a much lower frequency than what was projected, said Ashley Colvin, a staff member of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the investigative arm of the General Assembly.

“We’re just not assessing as frequently as we thought we would,” he said.

Even so, the larger estimates already had been factored into money available for maintaining highways as part of the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s six-year plan, an amount Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., Bristol Republican, set at about $385 million during the span.

While gasoline tax increases were stripped off the repeal bill yesterday, a major policy dispute still awaits over a bill Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat, is sponsoring to boost the fuel tax by 5 cents over five years.

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