There is a lot more involved in the federal government's attempt to stifle Maryland's new "gas guzzler" tax on automobile purchases than is obvious at first glance. The tax itself may not amount to much for the next few years. It was diluted considerably in the General Assembly to get it passed this year. In fact, the tax may have little practical effect for the next couple of years. The penalty for buying a car that burns fuel wastefully or the reward for buying one that is fuel-efficient are not significant until 1995. As a tax it will raise little for the state treasury in its first few years.
But there is a serious threat to federalism in Washington's argument that it has preempted the regulation of fuel economy, meaning the states can't legislate about it. Legally the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration may have a strong case. Just this month the Supreme Court ruled that states can't regulate airline fare advertisements which they think are deceptive. There are similarities between those state laws and Maryland's gas guzzler tax. But there are also differences. The advertising case dealt with forcing airlines to do something. The gas tax is imposed on Maryland consumers, not on the automobile manufacturers. Reasonable people can discern a difference there, even if Washington bureaucrats can't.