State GOP attacks DMV rate increase effort
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Last year's vote to raise Department of Motor Vehicle fees is coming back to haunt Democrats in legislative races, even though the fees never actually increased.
Pro-Republican attacks against Democratic incumbents are the latest, if somewhat latent, twist to the curious 2011 effort to come up with money for state highways.
There's no question legislative Democrats backed the plan to raise DMV fees by $43 million a year. The increases passed the Democrat-majority House along party lines.
But Democrats have called the ads misleading. First, then-acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the bill - so the fees never actually increased. Second, some of the Democrats targeted by the ads were not in the Legislature at the time and, yet, are getting blamed for the vote in TV ads and mailers.
The goal was to get money into the State Road Fund by raising various fees, including those for vehicle registrations and titles. The road fund is said to need hundreds of millions of dollars to keep up with wear and tear on state roads.
The bill itself was somewhat remarkable at the time. Tomblin was fresh to the Governor's Office. As the president of the Senate, he had been called up to act as governor after Joe Manchin left the office to join the U.S. Senate in November 2010.
At the time, the state highway department officials - who report to Tomblin - lobbied for the bill.
It passed, and then their boss vetoed the bill, citing technical errors that could have caused courts to strike it down. But Tomblin's campaign also sought to make political hay from his veto in ads during the 2011 Democratic primary.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, was running against Tomblin in the primary. In remarks at the time, the speaker suggested Tomblin was essentially for the bill before he was against it.
Now, Republicans are using the bill against Thompson's members and, depending on the effectiveness of the ads, the vote could eat away at Tomblin's Democratic cushion in the House.
A Tomblin campaign spokesman said Friday the governor vetoed the bill because he was opposed to increasing taxes.
"With a difficult national economy, the governor did not think it was the right time to increase fees for our residents," Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said.
This year, Tomblin appointed a "blue ribbon commission" to study road funding, though he's also asking the transportation department to make some cuts to its budget.
A wide range of assessments - from state road officials to a West Virginia University economist to legislative Democrats - have concluded the road fund needs new money, either from taxes or fees. Tomblin is obviously not committing to that at this point and some Republicans have suggested money can be found within the budget.
The DMV line of attacks has appeared in a number of ads, including TV ads paid for by D.C.-based GOPAC-West Virginia; mailers paid for by the Eastern Panhandle Freedom Fund; and by the West Virginia Republican Party in TV ads against Delegates Ron Fragale and Richard Iaquinta, both D-Harrison.
In reference to the ad against Fragale and Iaquinta, state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas said the two "claim to be conservative, but their voting records prove otherwise."
Pam Van Horn, the director of the West Virginia Democratic Legislative Council, said members are unhappy with the ads.
"All of our members, of course, are not happy," she said. "They do not feel it is not a fair representation of their overall record by any means."
The state has not had a general tax increase in nearly two decades and the Legislature has lately been reducing or eliminating some taxes, though some fees have risen.