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Senate passes increase in court fees as legislators struggle for funding alternatives

Rosalind Helderman

As the General Assembly moves inexorably toward the severe budget cuts that will be necessary to fill Virginia's two-year $4 billion shortfall, there are likely to be a lot more debates like the one that took place on the floor of the senate this afternoon on SB329.

On the face of it, the debate was whether Virginia should raise the fees paid when civil court cases are filed, in some cases dramatically, using the revenue generated to fund local sheriff's offices.

But really the debate was about nothing less than how to go about funding the basics of government in a recession.

Those who supported the measure, including its sponsor Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-Westmoreland), one of the chamber's most conservative Republicans, argued the fee increase were an unpleasant but critically-needed way to raise about $51 million, most of which would go to local law enforcement.

"I'll be honest -- I don't like this bill," Stuart said. "But it's the best way I can think of to preserve public safety in Virginia."

And, indeed, without such a move, the cuts being contemplated for public safety are severe. The Sheriff of Pittsylvania County, for instance, told us this morning that without additional revenue, he will have to layoff 20 of his 70 deputies.

Stuart argued there was a "nexus" between the fee and the revenue, a key point for many Republicans when weighing proposals to increase fees, suggesting that those who file suits would be paying to ensure the security of the courtroom, among other things.

But some Democrats argued that the fee hikes would be so high that they would make it difficult for individuals and small businesses to file lawsuits, including in cases where they simply are going to court to seek money others owe them. Law enforcement, they argued, is a basic function of government, something that be funded by taxes paid by all rather than fees paid by a few. They raised the specter of the hated abuser fees on bad drivers, adopted by the General Assembly as a way to avoid taxes to fund transportation, only to be repealed soon after because they proved so unpopular with the public.

"These increases are unprecedented," said Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke). "I understand that the sheriffs want to get paid -- and they should get paid. But not in this way."

Opposition also came from Republicans who felt that the nexus described by Stuart was not strong enough and opposed raising fees, just as they oppose raising taxes.

In the end, the bill passed on a narrow 23 to 17 vote. But here's a sign of how difficult the issue was for both parties: 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans voted "yes"; nine Democrats and eight Republicans voted "no."

By Rosalind Helderman  |  February 15, 2010; 3:32 PM ET
Categories:  Abusive Driver Fees , General Assembly 2010 , Rosalind Helderman , State Senate  
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Are there any rate-hike exemptions for small claims court?

If not, that's a lot to ask a random citizen to pay who's suing his neighbor for $1500 in damage.

Posted by: Joey-K | February 15, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

What they need to do is shift funding away from these social programs and keep the law enforcement people employed. I can't believe that they want to law off law enforcement. I would rather see a cop on the street than some illegal teenager getting pre natal care....

Posted by: mark0004 | February 15, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

If public safety is to be paid by user fees rather than by general fund revenue, here are some more ideas to balance the budget:

Call 911 = $500 emergency service fee. Roadside assistance = $250 responder fee. Call police to report a break-in = $750 community safety fee.

If this sounds wrong, it's because IT IS! Public safety ought to be funded by general taxpayers due to the enormous general benefit provided. Pricing small businesses out of the system is the wrong way to go!

Posted by: mdennis74 | February 15, 2010 10:39 PM | Report abuse

Why should people who file civil suits be expected to fund the sheriffs' offices? Isn't the principal function of these offices to house, feed, and guard pretrial detaniees and prisoners? This function should be funded from general taxation.

Sheriffs do serve process in civil cases, but I think most court papers are served by private businessmen because it is so much faster and more certain.

Posted by: esch | February 16, 2010 1:41 AM | Report abuse

It would help us all if the story included a better hint of the size of the user fee increases.

Posted by: oleprof | February 16, 2010 6:16 AM | Report abuse

private civil process is used by some lawyers but the sheriff's still serve a boat load of civil. It's what I have done the last 20 years. "So much faster and more certain." Not sure what you are talking about esch.

Posted by: mast2 | February 16, 2010 6:53 AM | Report abuse

not a problem. Our newly elected governor bob mcdonnell won on the pledge that he would not raise taxes (fees are just another form of taxes). so bobby, time to live up to your rhetoric. we'll be watching what you do.

Posted by: dlpetersdc | February 16, 2010 7:06 AM | Report abuse

HA! A Republican raising taxes to cover a budget shortfall...I thought only Democrats did that???

Posted by: Krazijoe | February 16, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse

the public employees need to take pay cuts and cut backs in benefits.

Posted by: SofaKingCool2009 | February 16, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

Politicians, especially Republicans, constantly rail against raising income taxes, but those same politicians seldom are outraged about raising fees or taxes in other areas. Quit playing games. The State needs revenue just to keep people working. My State income tax rate hasn't been raised since the 1980s. Increasing the rate would not hurt a single tax payer in Va. but it might be able to save jobs and aren't jobs the main issue today!

Posted by: jrussell1 | February 16, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

I believe that property taxes should first fund law enforcement and then schools...
we won't need schools if we are not safe...

Posted by: DwightCollins | February 16, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Looks like the filing fee is going from $60 to $500 for most lawsuits, and from $160 to $1,000 for lawsuits seeking more than $1 million. The small claim court fee is going from $27 to $75.

Posted by: John2021 | February 16, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Just one more example of big government Republicans raising taxes through user fees are trying not to call it a tax. If you are going to double and triple DMV fees, speeding tickets, court filing fees, and any other fees for government services at least have the guts to call it what it is...a massive tax increase!!

Posted by: BushMustGo | February 16, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I'm sure good ole McDonnell will not call this a TAX. Instead they use the less-maligned term of Fee Increase. Isn't public safety a main function supporting the general population? Why should someone seeking restitution pay a increase in fee to pay for someone calling to get roadside assistance or respond to a burglery?

So much for gopers trying to balance a budget fixated on their ideological terminology. Go figure!

Posted by: hadelaide | February 16, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

How about a $1,500 excise tax on every handgun sold or brought into Virginia?

Posted by: Rich393 | February 16, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Why not lay off law enforcement. Why is this such a taboo topic. On a typical trip between Richmond and Charlottesville, it is not unusual to see 4 state troopers manning radar guns on the side of the road. If they can commit 4 state troopers along with state vehicles for this exercise then there are too many state troopers or they are just lazy.

Posted by: kjc7723 | February 16, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

well, that's one way to price yourself out of the market... charge unaffordable admission fees at the door.

if this is justified by courtroom security, then privatize the service and hire an affordable security firm.

problem solved.

you're welcome, taxpayer.

Posted by: millionea7 | February 16, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

GOP: FEE.........Dems:'s money either way, right?

Posted by: jckdoors | February 16, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Why not cut the ridiculous salaries of these government parasites, instead of raising fees and taxes?? Ridiculous.

Posted by: tjhall1 | February 16, 2010 7:42 PM | Report abuse

"Why not cut the ridiculous salaries of these government parasites" (?) "the public employees need to take pay cuts and cut backs in benefits" (?) Do any of you actually know wha the base salary of a State employee is? Of course you don't. It's far less than a comparable private sector job...and a job without pay increases. Government employees keep Virginia moving on your behalf, on behalf of all citizens. We don't do this for the pay..we do it for Virginia.

Posted by: wrchapman | February 16, 2010 10:11 PM | Report abuse

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