Fee fiasco

Column by David Cox

As if you haven’t heard: The new traffic fees stink. Really bad. So bad, they need to be repealed. ASAP.

If there is anyone who really hasn’t heard, here’s the story. Last winter our esteemed legislature enacted a transportation bill. Given the allergy to raising taxes, legislators must resort to creative financing to find the funds to pay for very-much-needed improvements to Virginia’s roads, rails, bridges, and other transport infrastructure.

What a neat idea, thought Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax County, to raise funds AND reform drivers at the same time. His solution? Sock whopping, multiyear fees on egregious offenders – suspended licensees, reckless drivers, superspeeders and the like – on top of fines. Make them pay big, like a couple hundred dollars, and make them pay long, like that amount for each of three years. If they don’t, suspend their license.

The legislature bought it, and the governor, whose normal good judgment momentarily departed from him, signed it. The result? Virginians – and not out-of-staters – face huge fees on top of fines for breaking the law. That’s because our state constitution back in 1810 designated fines to go for schools, not roads. To raise funds for roads, these have to be fees. But because they’re fees, not fines, and because the ultimate penalty for non-payment of fees is suspension of a Virginia license, these fees can’t, and won’t, be assessed against non-Virginia drivers.

So a North Carolinian can speed along 81 to his heart’s content, risking a hefty fine but not exorbitant fees on top of it; in any event, he doesn’t have to worry about Virginia suspending his license because, guess what, Virginia hasn’t issued him one. And so he passes by Virginians traumatized by the prospect of getting caught, grumbling about the unfairness of it all.

And the grumbling, while not their desire to speed, is justified. Then there are the inevitable unintended consequences that our legislators rarely bother to consider. Suddenly our police force is not only responsible for maintaining public safety, but also for increasing public revenue. If they weren’t the bad guys before, then they will be now.

Maybe they will single out those Virginia drivers as being much more lucrative for the state and leave that speeding Tarheel for the Maryland police to nab. But there’s another possibility – that knowing the burden an arrest may place on a Virginia citizen, they look the other way. In any event, I bet this makes life awkward for them.

Then another quirk that we’ll love to hate. Because these are fees, there’s no judicial review. Fines? Yes. Fees? No. In face of legitimate extenuating circumstances, a judge might reduce the fine to the minimum, but the sucker’s still gotta pay big time.

What happened to get us to this mess? The Assembly tried to do too much. It tried to pay for roads AND reform drivers. Both are worthy motives, but the motives don’t mix. For the ultimate paradox is that if every Virginian became a totally law-abiding citizen, we wouldn’t get our roads fixed.

If the plan works, the plan fails.

So what would I do? Repeal the thing. Let that be next year’s first legislative act. Of course, repeal would probably not take effect until July 1, 2008. So in the meantime, the best way of getting back is to (get this) drive carefully. Don’t speed. Don’t drink and drive. If your license is suspended, carpool. It may be perverse to suggest, and maybe not the best of motives, but let this be your motto: Driving well is the best revenge.

Maybe by the time we get this irrationality revoked, we’ll have a crop of really good Virginia drivers, so law-abiding that our police can chase crooks – and speeding North Carolinians.

David Cox is the Democratic Party nominee in the 24th Senate District.

The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of management of The Augusta Free Press.


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