Outraged vehicle owners piled into a public hearing Tuesday to denounce a bill from Gov. Paul LePage’s administration that would slap hefty annual fees on hybrid and all-electric vehicles.
The Maine Department of Transportation has proposed annual fees of $150 for hybrid vehicles and $250 for electric cars because many owners pay lower gas taxes than drivers of standard vehicles, or no gas tax at all.
But the vast majority of speakers at the transportation committee hearing said the fees proposed under L.D. 1806 – “An Act To Ensure Equity in the Funding of Maine’s Transportation Infrastructure by Imposing an Annual Fee on Hybrid and Electric Vehicles” – were arbitrary, punitive, unfair and would create a disincentive for people who want to buy low- or no-emission vehicles.
“This bill purports to ensure equity. It is in the title,” said Dan Townsend of Whitefield. “That claim is laughable. It selectively penalizes a group of socially conscious Maine consumers for their choice of vehicle. It should be roundly rejected.”
The Department of Transportation, which wrote the bill, argues that fees on hybrid and electric vehicles will ensure that owners pay a fair share of the state’s chronically underfunded budget for road and bridge projects, the primary means of paying for that work.
The bill is supposed to be a starting point for discussion, said Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt. There are more electric and hybrid vehicles on the road every year, a trend that will continue as car companies introduce more all-electric models, including heavy trucks, he said.
“The state needs to be able to collect revenue from these gas-independent vehicles,” Bernhardt said. “This is not meant to be a punishment.”
AVERAGE MAINER’S GAS TAXES: $82 A YEAR
However, vehicle owners and environmentalists argued that the proposed fees were grossly out-of-scale and urged lawmakers to find new ways to fund highway maintenance.
Roughly 20 people spoke against the bill. Several noted that hybrid cars use gasoline at least part of the time, so owners already pay into the highway fund through the gas tax.
The average Mainer pays about $82 in gas tax annually, said Andrea Maker, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, a national trade group.
“The most the state should reasonably charge is $80 a year,” she said.
There are about 19,000 hybrid cars and 410 electric vehicles in Maine, or about 3 percent of all passenger vehicles registered in the state, according to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. If a fee was imposed on all those vehicles, it could bring in about $2.9 million a year.
The state’s highway fund is underfunded by about $160 million a year, and the MDOT has borrowed hundreds of millions through state bonds in recent years to make up most of the shortfall.
Arnie Hoffman of Biddeford echoed other drivers when he said he bought his hybrid to reduce vehicle emissions and reduce his reliance on fossil fuels. Adding a heavy tax on the vehicle would create a disincentive for more people to buy fuel-saving cars, he said.
“Why not pass a bill that assesses an additional tax based on miles driven by each vehicle, rather than slapping a regressive tax on energy-conserving vehicles?” he asked.
GETTING TO THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
Many speakers called for similar changes to the way the state collects revenue for its highways, arguing that fees based on weight and annual mileage were more equitable and effective.
The state’s 30 cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t changed since 2011, and is not indexed to the inflation rate. The 18-cent federal gas tax hasn’t increased since 1993.
“I recognize Maine is facing a deficit in transportation funding,” said Emily Green, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. “Saddling owners of electric and hybrid vehicles with disproportionate fees that exceed what they would otherwise be paying is unfair and doesn’t get to the root of the problem – stagnant gas taxes while all cars are getting more efficient.”
The LePage administration is adamant that it will not consider increasing the gas tax, Bernhardt said.
Only the Associated General Contractors of Maine and the Maine Better Transportation Association joined Bernhardt and Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, the bill’s sponsor, to testify in favor of the bill. Both groups hedged their endorsement by asking that it be included as part of a comprehensive highway funding package that included road use fees on fuel-efficient vehicles, a seasonally adjusted gas tax and other solutions.
Another bill, from Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, would increase the state gas tax by 7 cents per gallon, impose fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, raise registration fees and reallocate sales tax to the highway fund.
Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: