As one of the minority of legislators who voted against the new Civil Remedial Fees every single time we had a chance to vote on them as a stand-alone issue, I cant help but feel a small sense of vindication over the growing public outcry to repeal the fees. More than 134,000 people so far have signed the petition demanding immediate repeal, and Ive heard from more constituents on this one issue than on any other single issue since I was elected. These fees illustrate what happens in Richmond when hidebound ideology stands in the way of fair, practical, mainstream solutions. The good news is that a fair and simple solution exists if the General Assembly can find the will to act.
First, its important to understand that these fees are designed to raise revenue and not to improve public safety. (Virginia Code 46.2-206.1.A: The purpose of the civil remedial fees imposed in this section is to generate revenue…). While I am not necessarily opposed to stiffer penalties for drivers who seriously and habitually break the law, in my judgment, it is not good public policy to count on people breaking the law as a way to raise money for transportation. After all, if these fees do cause people to drive more safely (even though that wasnt the General Assemblys purpose for them) then we dont end up with the money we need. Moreover, because these are not fines in the traditional sense, but rather fees collected annually by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, we can only collect them from Virginia drivers, even when drivers from outside of Virginia abuse our roads.
So how did the General Assembly end up passing such a bad piece of public policy that has been panned by the people we represent? The answer begins with recognizing that we had to do something to deliver transportation funds especially for Northern Virginia, where our economy and quality of life suffer the most from traffic and gridlock. Independent, non-partisan transportation experts estimate that we need about $1 billion a year for the next 25 years to deliver real transportation solutions to improve the situation. Moreover, without doing something, Virginia would have run out of transportation funds for anything but maintenance within a few years. Understanding this sober reality, every chamber of commerce in our area lobbied hard for the General Assembly to solve the problem, even telling us that they would prefer to be taxed more than continue to suffer the economic consequences of our sclerotic transportation infrastructure.
I was proud to join fellow House Democrats along with Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, and Governor Kaine to rise above partisan ideology and work together. However, House Republicans, bitterly at odds with members of their own party in the Senate and ideologically bound by their rigid No Tax Pledge, refused to consider what many of us believe to be the most fair and efficient solution: a small increase in the gas tax. A quick look south to the border with North Carolina reveals the counterintuitive economic fact that a small gas tax increase has no effect on the price you pay at the pump. North Carolinas gas tax is nine cents higher than ours, but gas costs the same on both sides of the border, because its the free market that actually determines the price of gas. A10 cents per gallon increase in the gas tax would have raised what we need for transportation with minimal money wasted on new bureaucracy, and about a third of that billion dollars would have come from out-of-state drivers, which means less money out of your pocket. Instead, House Republicans crafted an omnibus transportation funding bill, House Bill 3202, that nickel and dimes Virginians with fees and pushes the blame for a hodge-podge of new taxes on local governments. At least it allowed them to claim that they didnt raise taxes.
After Governor Kaine amended the Republican bill to improve it, I voted for it. This was a difficult vote for me, as the bill still contained some objectionable provisions, like these civil remedial fees. However, a vote against the bill would have left us without the resources to begin addressing critical infrastructure improvements. Among other things, the bill includes dedicated funding for Metro a key priority for the 45th District and it grants localities important new powers to help manage development. Therefore, despite my objection to the abuser fee component of the bill which represents just 6.5 percent of the $1-billion package I supported the overall bill because, on balance, it will improve peoples lives more than inaction.
However, its clear from the public response to these abuser fees that most mainstream Virginians agree with those of us who opposed this policy. Therefore, if I am re-elected this November, I will sponsor legislation to repeal these fees and to replace the $65 million in revenue we will lose with a penny per gallon transportation user fee that drivers from Virginia and out of state will pay when they buy gas. This modest proposal will remove one of the more objectionable elements of the transportation package, allow No Tax Pledge House Republicans still to claim they opposed taxes, and still keep Virginia moving forward.
David Englin is a Democrat representing the 45th district and lives in Alexandria.