Democratic Challengers Go Partisan

Democratic Challengers Go Partisan

Republican incumbents say abuser fees became a necessary evil of passing the crucial 2007 transportation bill.

Democratic challengers to the 34th, 37th and 39th State Senate seats are positioning themselves together to voice distaste for the abuser fees imposed in House Bill 3202, passed by the General Assembly last session.

A portion of the bill allowed the state to impose excessive fees on traffic "abusers" — habitually reckless drivers throughout the state. When the General Assembly passed the bill, it included all drivers on the state’s roads. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) amended it to exclude out-of-state drivers — a stipulation that has aggravated many Virginians.

"This is a huge issue," said J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen, the Democratic challenger to Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34). "It’s an issue that, as a challenger, you need to be speaking to."

As Virginians have caught on to the details imposed in the abuser fee portion of the bill — details that include that include fines reaching as high as $3,000 for some offenses — calls to incumbents started pouring in. An online petition opposing the abuser fees has more than 167,000 signatures as of Aug. 1. The challengers, Petersen for the 34th seat, George Barker for the 39th seat, and Janet Oleszek for the 37th seat called a news conference to position themselves against the fees, Tuesday, July 31, in front of the Fairfax Courthouse.

The three challengers, if elected, said their first pieces of legislation would be to repeal the abuser fee portion of the transportation bill. But the three Republican Senate incumbents, Sens. Devolites Davis (34), Ken Cuccinelli (37) and Jay O’Brien (39), agree with their challengers about the bill’s inability to provide a "dependable source of sustainable revenue" for the region’s transportation crisis, said Devolites Davis. The senators say they were stuck with the abuser portion of the bill after a similar Senate transportation bill that didn’t include abuser fees was killed.

"It takes leadership to get something you don’t like [in a bill] removed," Oleszek said.

But Devolites Davis said people have to understand the legislative process and the situation legislators faced with regard to the transportation crisis in Northern Virginia.

Senators only had the opportunity to vote for all or nothing when the bill reached the Senate floor, because it was in the form of a conference report, which is unamendable. A similar Senate bill — one that did not include abuser fees — was killed in the House of Delegates.

"They’re trying to turn this into a partisan struggle," said Devolites Davis. "The Democrats had a chance to amend it out in the House, and not a single one did that."

The only bill the three Republican senators say they had left was the house bill that included the abuser fees, and something needed to be done in the 2007 session to address the region’s transportation crisis, said Cuccinelli.

"As flawed as it was, it was probably the best we’ll see for five years I think," Cuccinelli said. "With respect and responsibility to my constituents, I didn’t think I could vote to kill the bill."

Nobody in the General Assembly liked everything in the bill, he said. It needed 21 votes to pass in the Senate, which is exactly what it got.

Barker charged that O’Brien couldn’t claim he’s against the fees in the 2007 bill, since he was a co-patron of abuser fee-specific bills in the 2005 and 2006 sessions. Those bills, House Bill 314 in 2006 and House Bill 1563 in 2005, specifically targeted the most severe abusers though, said O’Brien. Those drivers — repeat offenders who represent just 2.5 percent of the state, he said — are whom the fees need to apply toward.

"The notion of penalizing the worst drivers, and raising money for roads, is really not a bad idea, if it’s properly done," he said.

What needs to come out of the 2007 abuser fees passed are the minor infractions and the exclusion of out-of-state drivers, said O’Brien. The goal in this should really be to have safety on our highways, he said, not to raise revenues for transportation.

"As a funding mechanism, it is very unreliable," said O’Brien. "I cannot recall, in 16 years [as a state legislator], a single bill or legislative initiative, of any consequence, where we have not had to go back the following year and do something about it."

The funding is unreliable, said Devolites Davis, because people’s behaviors will change, causing a certain drop in the estimated $65 million the fees would raise. But the fees are also unreasonable because it uses the criminal justice system to raise revenue, agreed the challengers and the incumbents. "Using your criminal laws to raise money for a traffic solution in Northern Virginia is a fundamentally bad idea," said Petersen.

Nobody is denying that though, said Cuccinelli. Many senators, including Devolites Davis, Cuccinelli and O’Brien, have called for a special session to address the fees, but Devolites Davis said Kaine has made it clear that won’t happen. It’s an issue that the 2008 General Assembly will certainly have to address, she said.

As for a replacement of the $65 million in revenue from the abuser fees, Cuccinelli said he doesn’t have anything particular in mind right now, but that he’d be open to a replacement solution. The Democratic challengers have pointed to a 1 cent gas tax increase as a reasonable way to raise the $65 million, but O’Brien said that wouldn’t work because it would be state-imposed, thus distributed under the transportation formula that brings Northern Virginia about 11 percent of the total — an amount many Northern Virginia legislators say is unfair based on the amount of revenue raised here annually.

What’s important right now, maintain the incumbents, is that Northern Virginians are now able to raise $300 million per year to fix, build and maintain its transportation infrastructure. Without the vote for the bill and the abuser fees, the region would still be stuck without a solution, said Cuccinelli.

"Ten to 15 percent of that money is in jeopardy because of the abuser fees, but the greater portion of it is still in place, because [we] voted for that compromise," said O’Brien.