Virginia laws bring carload of changes

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - New laws that affect the way you drive and how much it costs to do it went into effect Monday.

Virginia's sweeping new transportation funding law is changing gasoline and diesel taxes, imposing annual fees on hybrid and electrical cars, and boosting sales taxes on all conventional retail sales. A stiff new ban on texting while driving also went into effect.

Under other new laws effective July 1, public schools across the state will start receiving letter grades from A to F on how well they teach students, just as schools grade pupils. And concealed weapon permits will no longer be open for public inspection.

Of the 807 bills that the 2013 General Assembly passed, 742 of them kicked in at midnight.

None will be felt more - immediately and on a daily basis - than the 2013 transportation reforms, the first overhaul of Virginia's failing 27-year-old system for funding its 58,000-mile web of existing highways and for building new ones to alleviate highway gridlock, particularly in Washington, D.C.'s congested suburbs.

Ask just about any driver in northern Virginia about the need for transportation upgrades and you’ll likely hear that the need is pretty strong.

“I think it is, I definitely think it is,” says one driver. “I think we’re finally moving in the right direction.”

The new law, now the top legislative legacy of lame-duck Gov. Bob McDonnell, will generate up to $1.4 billion per year through several adjustments to taxes and fees. Conservatives in McDonnell's own Republican Party railed against it as the largest tax increase in Virginia history, and two senior GOP House members lost their seats for supporting it, defeated by primary challengers with tea party backing.

House Bill 2313 passed with overwhelming Democratic support on the final day of the legislative session, creating a bizarre alliance between McDonnell and the 2013 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Terry McAuliffe, while the GOP nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, opposed the measure and nearly derailed it with an 11th-hour legal opinion.

One reason conservatives vilified the compromise was an increase in the state's share of the sales tax from 4 percent to 4.3 percent with larger increases due in planning districts serving northern Virginia and Hampton Roads for enhanced regional transportation projects exclusive to those areas. When local sales taxes are added, the total sales tax in most localities will increase from 5 percent to 5.3 percent, boosting the tax paid on a $10 item from 50 cents to 53 cents.

“The customer needs to understand this is the law and we need to obey the law,” says Runolfo Jimenez, the co-owner of the USA Tailor Shop on Columbia Pike.

Jimenez may not like the tax, but he likes the idea of it helping improve the road outside his front door.

“The money needs to come from somewhere,” he says.

The new law reformulates the 17.5 cents-per-gallon fuel tax that hasn't changed since 1986, ditching the volume-based tax for one tied to cost. Starting Monday, a 3.5 percent tax will be paid on gasoline at the wholesale level - a cost that jobbers and dealers will presumably reflect in pump prices. In theory at least, that should reduce the cost to drivers of gasoline-powered cars by about 6 cents per gallon from existing tax, or a savings of $1.20 on a 20-gallon fill-up from the current Virginia average gasoline price just under $3.40 per gallon.

“I’m happy,” says one driver. “I got a car that only takes premium, so that’s a big help for me.”

The new tax on diesel, however, is 6 percent of cost, something that chafes big-rig drivers and owners of personal vehicles that use the higher-priced fuel. At last week's average per-gallon cost of about $3.70 in Virginia, they stand to pay 4 cents more per gallon, or 80 cents more than the existing tax for a 20-gallon fill-up.

Gasoline taxes could increase to 5.1 percent unless a quarrelsome Congress enacts federal legislation allowing Virginia and other states to collect sales taxes on Internet or catalog sales involving out-of-state retailers by Jan. 1, 2015. The 6 percent diesel tax rate would not change.

The new tax structure is designed to keep pace with fuel price increases. The steady climb in prices, particularly since 2008, hastened the obsolescence of the volume-based gasoline tax. When it went into effect 27 years ago, gasoline was about one-third of today's prices. As fuel costs increased, people drove less and cars became more fuel-efficient, decreasing the fuel consumption and the taxes collected on it. As revenues ebbed, costs for asphalt, concrete, steel and the labor necessary to build roads soared, forcing Virginia for years to shelve tens of billions of dollars in needed construction projects for lack of money.

There's more grief for owners of hybrid, alternative fuel or electrical vehicles. An extra $64 will be tacked onto annual vehicle registration fees as a share of paying for better roads and bridges.

Starting Monday, using a smartphone to text, read email or do something similar can get drivers pulled over and ticketed. Texting had been a secondary offense, meaning officers could cite offenders only if they were stopped for a superseding violation such as speeding or running a red light. Now, working an iPhone while driving means a $125 first-offense fine, up from $20, and more for subsequent violations.

As one of several education-related reforms, the old system for rating accreditation status of individual public schools is replaced with the grading system. By law, teacher performance evaluations are now required annually, and training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and use or heart defibrillators becomes mandatory for public school teachers and nearly all high school students. School boards must adopt anti-bullying policies. Public schools also will be required to develop teams to assess security threats and conduct at least two lockdown drills per year, measures enacted with near-unanimous backing after December's elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Also taking effect Monday is a two-year moratorium on the use of aerial drones by police and state agencies, and the clandestine use of electronic GPS devices to track a person's movements becomes a crime.

Also, much public information becomes off-limits. Records of people who hold permits to carry concealed weapons will no longer be public. Information about minors participating in public parks and recreation programs, emails by Virginia legislators and their staffs, and public disaster response plans are being exempted from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

In addition, an archaic and unenforceable 1950 law against "lewd and lascivious cohabitation" by unmarried couples is repealed effective Monday. And doctors who test patients for Lyme disease will be compelled to warn patients that some tests can fail to detect the disease.

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