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Va. GOP Proposes Bad-Driver Law Overhaul

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007; A01

RICHMOND, Aug. 22 -- Republican leaders in the Virginia General Assembly said they will introduce a plan Thursday to overhaul the controversial abusive-driving fees by applying them to out-of-state motorists and trying to limit the specific traffic offenses that would trigger them.

GOP leaders, who have faced weeks of criticism over the fees, also want to explore whether the state should make it more difficult for people to lose their licenses if they cannot afford to pay the fees. The Republicans plan to swiftly implement their changes when the legislature convenes in January if they retain control of the House of Delegates and Senate after the Nov. 6 election. Although Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) excluded non-Virginians from the fees, he has said he would work with the General Assembly on the change.

If the changes pass in January, some of the fees, which range from $750 to $3,000 and have irked Virginia voters, would be applied to Maryland and D.C. motorists ticketed for abusive driving who regularly commute or shop in Northern Virginia as well as to anyone passing through the state receiving such tickets.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the Courts of Justice Committee, said GOP leaders decided to act because the uproar over the fees is undermining residents' impression of the criminal justice system.

"We lost the confidence of the people on this issue, and we need to fix it," Stolle said.

The fees on felony and misdemeanor driving offenses were intended to raise money for transportation while making the highways safer by targeting reckless and drunken driving. But because Virginia's reckless-driving statute is so broad -- offenses include driving more than 20 mph over the speed limit -- courts have been flooded with angry motorists since the fees went into effect July 1.

More than 170,000 people have signed an online petition to repeal them, and at least three people have sued the state, challenging the statute's constitutionality. Those suits have centered on the exemption of out-of-state drivers.

GOP leaders also plan to explore whether Virginia's reckless-driving statute needs to be modified or whether some of the charges included in it should be exempt from the higher fees. If fewer offenses were covered under the reckless-driving statute, fewer motorists would be subject to the abusive-driver fees.

The Virginia State Police issued 100,000 reckless-driving citations last year, but judges often reduce the charge. Local police departments statewide issued thousands more tickets.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) were scheduled to hold a news conference Thursday to present the plan.

The effort comes as GOP lawmakers have grown increasingly worried that the fees could hurt the party in the Nov. 6 election, when all 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot.

"I just think we need to make sure everybody knows what our plan of action is going to be," Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) said. "A lot of people ask questions about [the fees], and I think this will really help clear some of them up so we can be talking about other issues."

Some Democrats said the GOP plan doesn't go far enough. They want the fees, which won bipartisan support when approved in February, repealed.

"They still don't get that the criminal justice system should not be used for tax collection," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Howell and Stosch have ruled out a complete repeal, legislators said. Howell thinks the fees will increase traffic safety and generate $65 million annually to build and maintain highways.

The biggest component of the plan involves the inclusion of out-of-state motorists.

As approved by the General Assembly, the abuser-fee law included them. But Kaine amended it, saying the Department of Motor Vehicles and the courts do not have the authority to collect a driving fee from someone from another state.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said he's "confident" the General Assembly will be able to include out-of-state drivers and collect "a lot of money" from them to use for transportation improvements.

Kevin Hall, a Kaine spokesman, said the governor "looks forward to working with the legislature in January on ways to address people's concerns about abusive-driving fees."

But some GOP delegates who support a complete repeal of the abuser fees say adding out-of-state drivers would only create problems. Noting that the abuser fees have generated headlines nationwide, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) said tourists will avoid Virginia if they think they could be tagged with a hefty fine.

"If the speaker thinks he can fix this by just adding out-of-state drivers, he will end up turning Virginia into a tourist wasteland," Marshall said. "We don't need the reputation as a 40,000-square-mile speed trap."

Marshall, who advocates a special session to repeal the fees before Nov. 6, said Howell's promise "will be a dead end for Republicans" in the election.

GOP leaders are emboldened by internal party polls showing that voters want the fees modified to include out-of-state drivers but that majorities support the concept and think the fees will lead to safer highways.