Democrats on the transportation committee reject a LePage administration proposal to make electric and hybrid vehicles more expensive to own in Maine.
By Peter McGuire, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
Democratic lawmakers rejected a proposal from Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to make owning hybrid and electric cars more expensive in a committee-level vote Thursday.
The 6-5 vote of the transportation committee fell along party lines, with Republican lawmakers opposing the panel’s recommendation to the full Legislature that the bill should not pass.
The bill would have imposed annual surcharges of $150 for hybrid gas-electric cars and $250 for all-electric cars to offset the state’s loss of fuel tax from those vehicles and help overcome an chronic multimillion-dollar highway fund shortfall.
Angry owners of electric and hybrid cars who swarmed the transportation committee last week fumed against the bill as shortsighted and arbitrary.
Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham co-chairman of the committee, said he couldn’t support the measure because it focuses only on fees for select vehicles, not other ways to raise revenue like raising the fuel tax and other fees.
“If people were really interested in doing something significant around transportation funding there would be some give-and-take,” McLean said. “Unfortunately, I feel we are not seeing that from the administration.”
McLean floated a bill last year that would raise highway funds by adding fees on hybrids and electric vehicles, increase the gas tax, reallocate some state sales tax and increase vehicle registration fees. The committee voted to table that bill on Thursday.
Maine has an annual $159 million funding shortfall for roads and bridges, which the state has offset by borrowing hundreds of millions in recent years.
“A lot of good bills make almost everyone unhappy and I think that is going to be the measure of success for a funding package,” McLean said.
Without the recommendation of the transportation committee, the bill is unlikely to win passage in the House and Senate.
Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt told lawmakers that the administration tried a stand-alone vehicle fee bill after a package of changes failed in committee last year. A department proposal this session to devote 12 percent of vehicle and parts sales taxes to the highway fund was voted down in the taxation committee, he added.
A comprehensive highway funding bill could take years of groundwork to successfully pass, he added. LePage will not consider raising the gas tax, taking that option off the table.
“For one thing, you can’t have a comprehensive package unless you talk about gas tax, and we all know where the administration sits on that,” Bernhardt said.
Maine’s 30 cent per-gallon gas tax hasn’t increased since 2011, after lawmakers stopped automatic annual increases pegged to the inflation rate.
If the tax had remained indexed to inflation, it would now be 33.6 cents per gallon and generate up to $25 million more a year, according to a committee analyst.
Proposed fees on electric and hybrid cars would raise roughly $2.95 million in 2020, according to the committee analyst. There are 19,000 hybrids and 450 electric cars registered in Maine, roughly 3 percent of passenger vehicles registered in the state according to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
While potential fee revenue is a tiny compared to the highway fund deficit, the state should do something now, since electric and hybrid cars will become more popular in the future, said Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, who sponsored the bill, L.D. 1806.
“We really need to try to put something in, even if it raises very little money,” Parry said. “We hear an awful lot in this building about people paying their fair share and we have a group of people paying none.”
Eighteen states have fees on electric or hybrid vehicles, but the fees proposed in the bill would be the most expensive in the country. Twenty-three states, including Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, provide financial incentives to lower the price of hybrid or electric cars, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
Parry acknowledged the proposed fees in his bill were high. In a minority report, he recommended annual fees of $50 for hybrids and $150 for electric vehicles, equal to what the average Maine driver pays in gas tax every year.