There are speeding tickets and penalties for driving drunk. But if an obscure provision in Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget proposal becomes law, motorists in Maryland will have another sanction to worry about: a fine for bad driving.
Get caught going 85 on the highway twice in two years? On top of the $1,080 in traffic fines you've earned, you'd owe the state $1,500. There would be a new fee for drunken driving too: A conviction would cost an additional $500 every year for three years.
A driver who didn't pay the surcharge could see his or her license suspended.
Bad driving fines, which O'Malley would use to help close an estimated $1.6 billion budget gap, have stirred controversy elsewhere. Drivers have been angered by the arrival of the unexpected bill, and some say the fees disproportionately hit those who cannot afford private attorneys to defend themselves against traffic citations.
Virginia imposed similar fines in 2007, only to repeal them (and refund the proceeds) the following year after tens of thousands objected.
And members of Maryland's General Assembly are already voicing discomfort.
"I don't think it is good public policy," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario, Jr. who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. "This is a blanket action, across-the-board fine without a hearing."
If the state needs to increase revenue, Vallario said, he would prefer raising existing fines.
The new fees would be assessed in addition to the fines drivers already receive for offenses such as speeding or driving on a suspended license. Drivers who collect more than five points in a two-year span would be charged $100 for each extra point each year for three years.
Common offenses that lead to points include driving without a license (5 points); driving 20 miles over the speed limit on the highway (5 points); failing to stop at a red light (2 points) and reckless driving (6 points).
Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., who chairs the Senate transportation subcommittee that examines the governor's budget, predicted "a lot of questions" about the proposed provision.
"I'd like to see all the details," DeGrange said. "Why is it five points? Is that the right number or is that just capturing more people?"
He said the change could clog the judiciary system, because it would give drivers more incentive to fight tickets.
Politically the fines could put O'Malley in a difficult position. The Democrat campaigned on a pledge that he would not propose new taxes — which it technically doesn't. But he also hammered his opponent, former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for arguing that there is a difference between a tax and a fee.
"It is a tax," House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, a Republican. "Clearly it is a tax. It is going to raise millions of dollars."
Del. Richard Impallaria, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, called it a "money grab" that the governor was "trying to slip in."
The idea didn't find many supporters in Anne Arundel County's traffic court this week either.
"We are already paying our fines here," said Ahad Ahmed, 20, from Laurel. He was pulled over in September for having a faulty headlight and driving on a suspended license. The offenses could add three points to his license, putting him within a speeding ticket of an annual fine for the next three years.
The proposal would affect roughly 14,000 drivers who have a sixth point added to their license each year, according to the O'Malley administration. Roughly 5,500 drivers are convicted annually on alcohol-related driving offenses.
The fees would net $5 million for the general fund in the next budget year and about $10 million the year after, the administration projects. Eventually revenue would be diverted to an account that supports volunteer firefighters and other emergency workers. Analysts have forecast deficits in the account in coming years.
Those who spend a lot of time in traffic court worry that the proposed fines would hammer poor people who can't afford private lawyers. Ross D. Hecht, an attorney from Upper Marlboro, says he takes care to scrub his clients' driving records — not just get them out of a single ticket. That's a service the public defenders don't provide, he said.
"They don't see you all the way through the process," Hecht said. To keep points off licenses, he'll find driving improvement programs and be sure that his clients' addresses are up to date with various bureaucracies.
On Wednesday he secured a probation before judgment for a client with 12 outstanding tickets who was caught for driving on a suspended license. The client had to pay fees, but escaped without a conviction — or new points on her license.
In 2007, Virginia fined drivers who had received an eighth point $100, and $75 for each point after that.
The program lasted a year. Tens of thousands of opponents signed an online petition for repeal; state Sen. R. Edward Houck was quoted in an insurance industry publication saying that it was "the worst action" the legislature had taken in 25 years.
At least three other states — Texas, New Jersey and Michigan — still charge bad driving fines. Lawmakers in at least two of those states are attempting to roll them back.