Grappling with Richmond’s latest laws

By Julia Brouillette

More than 800 pieces of legislation were approved during the most recent Virginia General Assembly session, and more than 700 of them went into effect July 1, which marks the beginning of the fiscal year.

Perhaps the most noticeable is the massive transportation bill, which includes sales tax hikes, hybrid car fees and a change in the way the state taxes gasoline.
A set 3.5-percent wholesale tax replaced the 17.5 cents per gallon retail gas tax, ultimately lowering the amount paid at the pump.

“The gas tax up until now has been a certain number of cents per gallon, now it’s a percentage,” explained Bernie Caton, the city’s legislative director and top lobbyist in Richmond. “So if the gas price is $3, [the tax] would be 10.5 cents.”

But the bill included bad news for hybrid and electric car owners — a $64 annual registration fee was imposed on hybrid electric, alternative-fuel and electric motor vehicles. Those revenues go directly to the state’s highway maintenance and operating fund.

Also included in the transportation bill are higher sales taxes — especially for Northern Virginia. Taxes for most purchases rose from 4 percent to 5.3 percent statewide. But an additional 0.7-percent sales tax increase, 2-percent hotel-occupancy tax and 0.15-percent real estate sales tax will be levied on consumers in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area.

“All that money will provide for additional transportation projects — both roads and mass transit, some of which will be determined by the Commonwealth Transportation Board and North Virginia Transportation Authority,” Caton said.

Local city governments will receive a cut of the haul, which they will distribute independently, he said.

A separate piece of legislation makes texting while driving a primary offense, meaning officers do not need another reason to stop motorists spatted texting. The offense is punishable by a fine of $125 for a first violation and $250 for the second and any subsequent violations. Before July 1, drivers could be fined $20 for a first offense and $50 for a second or subsequent offense.

But the state isn’t cracking down on all electronic use behind the wheel. Though the law prohibits texting, using a phone or GPS while driving remains legal. Moreover, motorists can use their hands to make phone calls.

Several education bills also took effect this month. Designed to fix the state’s chronically failing schools, the Opportunity Educational Institution will intervene in schools that have been denied accreditation, starting in the 2014-15 school year.

Details on the oversight board’s authority remain fuzzy, but the institution continues to concern Alexandria’s school community and the city’s state delegate, Rob Krupicka (D-45). Jefferson-Houston School, which has lost state accreditation, is a possible candidate for a takeover by Richmond.

“The law has fundamental problems … it doesn’t define what ‘takeover’ means,” Krupicka said. “I’m hoping that in the next General Assembly we can get rid of it or at least change it dramatically.”

As an Alexandria resident and parent whose two children attend the city’s public schools, Krupicka says the plan lacks clear objectives.

“I’m very concerned that the law was not thought through and is not being implemented properly,” he said.

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