Plans for special hybrid car tax a bad idea

By ROBERT WIYGUL,

So I’m kind of a frugal guy. My wife says cheap, but that’s just semantics. I like cars that get good gas mileage.

I also don’t like air pollution, since my job often has me reading about how particulates from car exhaust and other sources cause childhood asthma, premature deaths and things like that.

This led me to buy a Toyota Prius, the gas-electric hybrid that gets about 50 miles to the gallon, when they first came out back in 2002. Over the years, the Prius turned out to be a great car. I drove it for 12 years, then turned it over to my teenage daughters. It was a great car for teenagers too: kind of underpowered, didn’t use much gas. 

As far as I was concerned, the hybrid was a good deal – saved money on gas, and less pollution. Both things that seem like they should be encouraged. Retirees like hybrids for other reasons – having a car with good gas mileage means if you’re on a fixed income and gas prices go up, it doesn’t knock as big a hole in your budget.

So, it was a big surprise when I saw, tucked in all the mumbo jumbo and legalese, that the Mississippi Legislature was proposing to put a special tax penalty on hybrids and electric cars: $150 for electric cars and $75 for hybrids.

The claim seems to be that hybrids and electric cars don’t pay enough in gas taxes, which go to the Department of Transportation.

Leave aside the fact that driving a car that gets good gas mileage is something that ought to be encouraged, not punished. And leave aside the fact that the gas tax isn’t indexed to inflation, but the penalty for owning a hybrid is, so the hybrid penalty will go up every year.

The problem is that, as with a lot of things at the Legislature, the numbers don’t work.  

 

Consider what a Toyota Prius will pay compared to a similar car, like a Nissan Altima.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average Mississippian drives about 17,699 miles a year. Our gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in 30 years, is 18 cents per gallon. A 2018 Toyota Prius gets 53 miles to the gallon on the highway, and the Altima gets 38 miles to the gallon.

Once you do the math, the Prius will pay about $61 in gas taxes, and the Altima will pay about $85.

But the Prius has to pay the $75 penalty for owning a hybrid, so the Prius pays an extra $50 or so just for being more efficient and better for kids’ lungs.

In fact, when you do the math a Prius owner will pay more than somebody driving a Ford F-150, which weighs about 2,000 pounds more.

Electric vehicles will need to contribute to road upkeep, but the legislature’s penalty means the owner of a Nissan Leaf with a 60 mile range will pay more in taxes than that F-150.

The hybrid and electric vehicle penalty is a bad idea because it punishes people who are trying to do the right thing. But even more than that, it shows that Mississippi needs, as the late Sen. McCain said, a return to regular order. This penalty isn’t going to bankrupt any Prius owners. But it was stuck in a bill in a rushed special session, with no opportunity for fact finding and no hearings. As a result it is based on bad facts and makes bad, inequitable policy.

Frankly, there’s no reason to think the legislature won’t pass it at this point. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves seems to be stuck on it, and so he will raise taxes on Mississippi’s 10,000 or so hybrid owners. It’s going to be quite a surprise when they go down to the county tax assessor next time.   

Robert Wiygul is an attorney in Ocean Springs. He still has a couple of Priuses.     

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