A better car tax

Judging by the initiatives that get filed and passed, the most dire menace facing the good people of this state and country is . . . the vehicle tax. Last year, Republican legislators used the carrot of a $30 across-the-board cut in vehicle excise taxes to lure voters into passing Referendum 49, a complex bundle of dubious tax and transportation-finance measures. That same year, an initiative that would have effectively eliminated the vehicle tax failed to get enough signatures for a ballot run, perhaps because its promoters got a late start collecting signatures and picked an inaccurate and confusing title: the “No Car Taxes Initiative.” (It may also have put off motor-home and motorcycle owners, who pay the same vehicle tax as car owners and are especially prone to resent it.)

Now it’s b-a-a-ack. Marty Rood and Tim Eyman (the Mukilteo small-business owner who also co-sponsored last year’s anti-affirmative-action initiative) have gotten an earlier start on this November’s ballot, and have a snappier title: “$30 License Tab Initiative.” Their new Initiative 595 would repeal the 2.2 percent tax that the owners of everything from a Cricket to a Rolls pay each year on the book value of their wheels. All would pay a flat $30 fee, no matter what they drive and how much they drive. Owners of really cheap beaters might actually pay a few bucks more than they otherwise would under Referendum 49, but owners of luxury boats, O.J.-mobiles, and homes-on-wheels could save thousands each year.

Their good fortune would hit the state budget much harder than last year’s $30 rollback, axing about $1.6 billion in biennial revenues, 4 percent of the total. Half this loss would come from funds dedicated to road projects and more than a quarter from transit funding. Call it the “$30 Gridlock Initiative.”

Worse yet, I-595’s other main provision would effectively bar the state from making up that difference from other sources. It would require that all new state taxes go before a vote of the people—no taxation with representation. Eyman opines mildly that if “legislators know they have to go to the voters, they’ll look very hard for existing funds first.” He hopes they don’t succeed in passing any new taxes to replace the vehicle tax: “I’m personally opposed to all new taxes.” But he fears the voters just might agree to new taxes: “Sadly, we live in a state that approves of these things. We vote for school levies all the time.”

Fair is fair

Despite that last slip, Eyman doesn’t come on merely as a slash-and-cut tax rebel: He also argues that “the license-tab tax we have now is outrageous and unfair.” And he’s got a point. The vehicle tax is crudely progressive, but the value of one’s vehicle is only a very rough indicator of wealth. And by taxing vehicle value regardless of miles driven, it penalizes folks who drive less and contribute less to pollution, congestion, road hazards, and pavement wear. As Eyman notes, “There is no correlation between the tax and how much people beat up the roads. It doesn’t make sense that some retired couple with a motor home they only take out once a year pays $4,000 while some guy with a beat-up ’67 Chevy driving 70,000 miles a year burning oil only pays $50.” Mary Maas, the chair of the Washington Libertarian Party, got to the same issue when she told The Seattle Times (1/13), “We all have a right to be treated equally under the law. We’re all receiving the same service—the roads—so it doesn’t really matter if we have a BMW on the road or a Volkswagen.”

I have no doubt that Eyman and Maas are people of good will and intellectual integrity. And so I’m sure once they reflect on the implications of what they’ve said they’ll come to the only sensible conclusion: We shouldn’t just scrap the vehicle-excise tax; we should replace it with a nice, healthy gas tax increase! Two dollars more per gallon would be nice, but 20 cents would do for starters.

No other tax does so much as the gas tax to reward desirable behavior, discourage un- desirable activity, and allocate externalized costs to those who, as things now stand, im-pose them on the rest of us. If gas were pricey enough to discourage unnecessary driving, it would reduce fuel consumption, pollution, ac- cidents, congestion, road rage, highway build- ing, and of course oil imports and oil wars.

It’s small wonder so many people drive so many needless miles, when gasoline costs so little. Not only is it cheaper than bottled water; it costs half as much in real terms as it did in 1981.

Trouble is, the gas tax is like parking tickets; no matter how much sense it makes from a social, economic, and environmental view, it strikes a deep, reflexive bone of resentment in the car-addicted body politic.

For that reason, various green and progressive types, who tend to think and talk while the right-wingers act, have for some time thought and talked about an alternative to the gas tax that might bring the same benefits: a mileage tax. This might not be as difficult as it seems. As Shawn Cantrell, Northwest director of Friends of the Earth, notes, “If you’re already doing emissions tests, it would be easy for the guy to lean in the window and check the odometer.” But that approach has several faults: It’s intrusive; it would encourage no end of cheating; and it would tax your neighbor’s gas-guzzling Suburban the same as your Geo Metro.

Try teamwork

Nope, the gas tax is the answer. But how to pass it? Eyman and company show the way: Tie a gas-tax increase and a vehicle-excise-tax repeal together in the same initiative. A glorious collaboration, in the spirit of the Green Scissors campaign, between environmentalists and tax reformers. Even Libertarians and conservatives should get on the bandwagon. They say they support user fees, not general taxes, and reducing government’s role in redistributing income. But highways paid for by all, benefitting those who drive most, are just that sort of redistribution.

Follow the money

Raising the gas tax would also afford another benefit that Eyman claims for his excise-tax repeal: It would stimulate the economy by encouraging people to buy new, more fuel-efficient cars. But that wouldn’t be quite as big a boon for car dealers, who can make 10 times as much profit off an SUV guzzler as a hatchback fuel miser. They’re the natural special-interest constituency for a vehicle-tax repeal; watch and see how much they give to the I-595 campaign.

Do the car dealers support Eyman’s initiative? “Just generally,” he replies. “We really don’t have any special support.”

The I-595 campaign has at least one (perhaps insignificant) connection to the car business. Eyman acknowledges that its other co-sponsor/chair, Marty Rood, owned Rood Nissan/Volvo (now Northwest Nissan) in Lynnwood “until five or six years ago.” He adds that Rood, an old college buddy, now has “several software companies” and no stake in the car dealership.

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