WASHINGTON – Local cops and state troopers have become the new tax collectors in Virginia.
That's one complaint from opponents of a new state law that went into effect July 1 to raise fines on traffic violations to as much as seven times their previous levels. Excessive speeding — or even driving with under-inflated tires — could cost $1,000 or more under the new law.
"You're turning the police into tax collectors with guns — it's the wrong message," said Del. Bob Marshall, a Republican in the Virginia House of Delegates who opposed the legislation. "That's why this thing has to go."
Virginia politicians typically avoid tax hikes like the plague, so to pay for $65 million in new road and transportation projects, they have increased fines for traffic violations to levels never seen by most Americans.
Supporters say the intention of the law was not to target "soccer moms" or first-time offenders, only the very worst drivers. But the backlash in Virginia has been swift. By Thursday, more than 130,000 people signed onto an online petition calling for the law's repeal.
Lawmakers have been so inundated with complaints since the new fee schedule went into effect that rank-and-file delegates have been calling for the GOP-dominated General Assembly to convene a special summer session to repeal the bill.
That was not to be the case, however, after House Speaker William J. Howell, backed by Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, who signed the bill into law earlier this year, state Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch, R-Henrico, and Secretary of Transportation Pierce Home announced Thursday that the assembly can wait to revisit the bill in next January's session.
For now, new penalties can reach as high as $1,050 for driving 20 mph over the speed limit. That's $850 more than the previous fine for that offense. Other violations incurring a $1,050 fine include using the wrong turn signal, driving too fast for conditions, having below-standard tires or an "obstructed view," and reckless driving "on parking lots, etc."
The fees can be paid quarterly or in other installments. For instance, first-time drunk driving offenders will be required to pay $750 upon conviction and two more payments of $750 each for a total of $2,250 plus court costs payable over two years. That's up from a $300 fine for a first-time drunk driving conviction.
The new "civil fines" will be made payable to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which funnels the money to the state. The cash then goes into a transportation fund to be appropriated county by county.
Critics charge that the new law doesn't just target the assumed fiends of the road — drunk and aggressive drivers or hit-and-run offenders, for example — but drivers who may be violating the law, yet are still trying to be safe. They argue that driving faster than 55 mph — the posted speed limit — on the National Capital Beltway that circles Washington, D.C., is merely "going with traffic."
Marshall, who represents Prince William County in Northern Virginia, said the fee schedule may bring in the needed revenues, but it is an unseemly way to go about it. "If you want to enforce this strictly, you are going to have a lock down in Virginia and turn this state into a speed trap," he told FOXNews.com.
While the fees may seem excessive and have drawn considerable criticism, the increased revenue source is one of many new avenues local and state lawmakers across the country are seeking to avoid raising income and property taxes. In Virginia, lawmakers also raised taxes and fees on vehicle registrations, auto maintenance and the tourist industry to help fund the $300 million in transit and road projects for Northern Virginia, which includes the growing and notoriously congested Beltway and Washington D.C., suburbs.
Lawmakers representing Northern Virginia have long complained that the region doesn't receive enough appropriations for roads and other capital improvement projects aimed at reducing the traffic gridlock plaguing the area.
"Our idea was to go after that 2.5 percent of Virginia drivers who are abusive to help us build the roads. It was to make the roads safer. … It did make a lot of sense," said state Sen. Jay O'Brien, who represents Fairfax County in Northern Virginia and said legislators had a tough time coming up with a way to raise the needed transportation funds without leaning on the rest of the state.
Nonetheless, O'Brien, a Republican, joined the chorus of lawmakers calling for a special session to clarify the law and amend it if possible. Along with the rest of the General Assembly, he is up for re-election in the fall and has already felt the pressure from constituents as he campaigns door-to-door.
"I still think it's a good idea, but the public has to agree it's a good idea to work," he said.
Greasing the Skids for Revenues
While Virginia's fees may be the highest in the country, it isn’t the first state to enact heavy new civil fees for driving offenses. New Jersey, New York and Texas all do it, as does Michigan, though a movement is afoot there to get rid of the state's 4-year-old program.
And driving fines are not the only game in town, according to Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. Sepp said states have been seeking all sorts of ways to keep raising revenues without enacting across-the-board tax hikes.
Specific services and industries have faced new taxes for the first time: pet grooming and tattoo parlors in Arkansas, dry cleaning and satellite broadcasting in Ohio. Don't forget state "sin taxes" on everything from cigarettes and booze to high cover charges for topless bars. Licenses for specific services, like barbers and vendors, have also been increased to raise money.
The possibilities for taxing various products and services appear endless. According to a report in 2004 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states could have raised an estimated $57 billion more a year had they bothered to tax more services.
While the extra revenue may seem like a good deal for state governments, it hasn't gone unnoticed that officials are willing to generate revenues by placing the burden on its citizenry, said Aaron Quinn, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association.
Quinn said the new driver fees in Virginia have struck the loudest chord of any issue this year.
"People are upset and (lawmakers) are probably going to have to do something about it if they want to ensure their political futures," he said.
But Lon Anderson, a spokesman for The AAA Mid-Atlantic, said that going after drivers to help raise funds for transportation projects — just like other fundraising schemes for targeted projects — is a logical way to avoid raising taxes on everyone.
"We're looking at the lesser of two evils — putting a gas tax on all motorists, or raising the money through fines on the worst of drivers," he said, adding that he was told personally by state officials that a person merely making a wrong turn signal wouldn't get singled out for the new fines.
Northern Virginia has "some of the worst congestion in the United States," Anderson said. "We end up saying to motorists, 'We need to raise the money, we can tax all of you or tax the worst drivers.' "
Sepp said states should focus on tightening their fiscal belts and reducing the size of government rather than taxing small niches and markets that often don’t have a grassroots base to fight it.
"They pursue 'divide and conquer.' They look for a class of people either small or politically incorrect," or officials turn their eyes to services where taxpayers don't feel the crunch right away, he said.
States also considering another option for their transportation needs: the privatization of roads. To help pay for expanding road projects, some states have opted to sell off large chunks of their highways to private interests to maintain the roads. In exchange, the companies get tax breaks and can collect toll money.
In Indiana, for example, in 2006, a foreign consortium was granted a 75-year lease on the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road for $3.8 billion. The Australian partner in that deal, MIG, has a hand in many toll-road deals across the country and now runs the 14-mile Dulles Greenway in Northern Virginia as part of a $617 million agreement made in 2005. MIG also bought the four-lane Foley Beach Expressway Bridge in Alabama in 2005 for $95 million.
As of January, more than a dozen states either have completed such agreements, were in the middle of negotiations, or were seeking bids for private road construction and maintenance.
Checking the Rearview Mirror
Critics like Marshall are also steamed that the additional fees do not apply to out-of-state drivers. The state does not have the authority to collect the yearly payments from non-residents, say Virginia officials. This means that drivers from Maryland and the District of Columbia who are frequent users of the Beltway and other arteries connecting the three jurisdictions would get a break if they are pulled over or involved in an accident in Virginia.
Meanwhile, the Virginia State Police denies any suggestion that troopers will be more aggressive in clocking motorists when a $65 million "quota" is at stake. The police view the new laws as a safety effort. Over the July 4 holiday, 16 people were killed in car accidents throughout the state, down from 22 killed during the same period in 2006.
"Our troopers are on the road to enforce the laws. They won't be acting any more aggressively because of the fines," said Virginia State Police spokesman Deborah Cox.
She added: "If people follow the rules of the road, they don't have anything to worry about."