A second Virginia court ruled new surcharges on bad drivers unconstitutional Friday because nonresidents don’t pay them.
At the same time, cracks began to show in a high-level bipartisan alliance that has defended the law against a statewide public outcry against it.
One day after a judge in Henrico County became the first to rule that the out-of-state exemption violates the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law, a Richmond General District Court did the same.
The decisions are binding only in the two localities, and appeals of both decisions are pending in circuit courts next week. More constitutional challenges are expected to be filed in other localities next week.
With the law under attack in court, strains became evident within the rare alliance between Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Republican legislative leaders in support of the transportation funding law.
Kaine appeared last month with House Speaker William J. Howell and other top House and Senate Republicans in a bipartisan show of unity for the law amid growing calls for its immediate repeal. In defending the embattled law, the governor and the GOP leaders called it a product of bipartisan compromise.
Since then, Kaine has publicly discussed the prospect of reimbursement for people who have paid the fees when lawmakers consider the law’s flaws after the 2008 General Assembly convenes in January.
Howell, in a three-paragraph statement issued Thursday in response to the Henrico court ruling, labeled the unpopular nonresident exemption “the Gov.’s amendment.”
The same day, his office sent e-mails to House Republicans offering guidance on how to pen letters to newspaper editors in which they defend the law by noting in part that “… Gov. Kaine amended the legislation by removing out-of-state drivers from the abusive driver fees.”
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the memo containing the drafts.
Publicly, each side denied targeting the other for blame or that their statements mean they are any less confident in the measure.
“We’re talking back-and-forth. There’s no distancing from them (the governor’s office) on those points,” said G. Paul Nardo, the speaker’s chief adviser.
Kaine and Howell remain united in opposing a special legislative session to remedy or repeal the fees and prefer to address the problems next year, said Kaine’s press secretary, Kevin Hall.
The wording of Howell’s statement on Thursday, however, was not lost on Kaine or his advisers.
“You can call it whatever you want. It was a bipartisan effort,” Hall said.
But with elections for all 140 House and Senate seats just three months away and GOP legislative control at stake, both acknowledged partisan interpretations are inevitable.
“It’s the miserable, hot summer of an election year,” Hall lamented.
Nardo said the letters-to-the-editor templates for House GOP Caucus members and their supporters was intended to counter attacks from House Democratic leaders Brian J. Moran and Ward L. Armstrong who are blaming Howell, who was the bill’s sponsor, and the GOP for the law.
“They had 87 percent of (House) Democrats supporting the fees in April, and now they’re speaking out against it?” Nardo said. “The point was to remind all these people of who voted for it.
“This is a political year and we have political pressures,” he said.
The fees are part of the nearly $1 billion-a-year transportation funding package passed this year. The package, containing increases in some annual fees and regional tax increases in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, was the initiative of House and Senate Republicans. The bill was sent to Kaine in February on a 64-34 vote in the House with 28 of the 40 House Democrats voting no.
Kaine rewrote the bill and, in the process, deleted a 14-word clause that imposed the fee on nonresidents. Kaine and GOP leaders agreed the fees could not be enforced outside Virginia. In April, legislators overwhelmingly approved Kaine’s amendments, with only five Democrats voting no.
Have fun in November. Hope that “bipartisan compromise” was worth it.