WE GET IT that we won’t always agree with how the people who are elected to the General Assembly vote on legislation. Oftentimes the issue is a controversial or partisan one on which people have differing opinions. Everyone has to expect that.
But sometimes, they just get it wrong—in ways that are particularly distressing for their own district’s constituents.
Take Del. Margaret Ransone, for example, a Republican who represents part of Caroline County and all of the Northern Neck, including King George and Westmoreland counties. She is a member of a House Courts of Justice subcommittee that last Tuesday killed a bill aimed at repealing a state law that allows the suspension of the Virginia driver’s license of someone who fails to pay any sort of court-ordered fines and fees in a timely manner.
More than 600,000 Virginians have lost their driving privileges for some period of time under the law, though some estimates put the number closer to 1 million. By comparison, a similar law in Maryland that allows suspensions only for non-payment for driving infractions limits the number of drivers affected to fewer than 50,000. But that doesn’t justify the policy.
Del. Ransone joined three Republican colleagues in a 4-3 party-line subcommittee vote to kill the measure, which originated in and was passed by the state Senate on a 36–4 vote. Word is that had the legislation reached the full House floor, it would have passed the Republican-controlled chamber with a similarly lopsided vote.
Subcommittee members said their decision to kill the bill was based on its failure to replace the funds lost by doing away with the law, but the bill approved by the Senate had been amended to account for that.
By suspending the driver’s license of someone who is unable to pay their bills, Virginia creates a modern-day debtor’s prison. For those who must drive to get to work and earn a living, the loss of driving privileges begins a downward spiral.
It punishes people for failing to pay by removing their ability to drive to work and make a living. It punishes them for being poor. The circumstances could force an individual and his or her family to seek public assistance because of the breadwinner’s inability to drive to work.
If there is any House of Delegates district where people must be able to drive to do anything, including get to work, it is Ransone’s 99th District. We should also point out here that one of the four “nay” votes cast in the full Senate was from Republican Sen. Ryan McDougle, whose 4th District includes many of the same rural counties as Ransone’s. (Area Sens. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, and Scott Surovell, D-Stafford, all voted to repeal the law.)
Not only is the policy regressive on its face, but a federal judge hearing a challenge to the practice last December found it likely in violation of constitutional due process, not to mention that it targets punishment to a particular group of people: the poor.
We certainly see value in a program through which the Department of Motor Vehicles works with drivers in arrears on their court-ordered fees and fines, requiring that they regularly pay some reasonable amount toward the debt, or else be hauled back into court to face the judge’s wrath. Perhaps some sort of community service component is in order.
The point is that the law ought to be repealed and the punitive policy ended. The collateral damage inflicted upon family members or other dependents who suffer from the lost household income is simply unfair and unjust.
Those lawmakers who could have ended the practice for good this time around, but didn’t, should be ashamed of themselves.