'Technicality' halts gas-guzzler law Curran says law can be reworked to avoid mentioning fuel economy.

June 25, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

ROCKVILLE -- Maryland's groundbreaking new tax on gas guzzlers cannot take effect because of a "technicality," but that flaw could be ironed out by the legislature next year, the state attorney general says.

In releasing his 10-page opinion yesterday, J. Joseph Curran Jr. challenged federal transportation officials who say states cannot enact tax and rebate programs that encourage people to buy more fuel-efficient cars.

The Bush administration should "get out of the way" because Maryland intends to lead the nation in this area, said Mr. Curran, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor.

The fate of Maryland's so-called guzzler/sipper law is being watched nationwide by environmentalists, who want states to do what they say the Bush administration has been reluctant to do -- encourage automobile fuel efficiency.

The first of its kind in the nation, the Maryland law would have added a surcharge to the cost of gas guzzlers and given a rebate from the state's 5 percent titling tax to buyers of fuel-efficient cars.

Buyers would face a $100 surcharge for choosing a 1993 model-year car that gets less than 21 miles a gallon, but would receive a $50 rebate for purchasing a "sipper" that gets more than 35 mpg.

At a news conference outside a Rockville courthouse, Mr. Curran said he believes the General Assembly could get around "the feds" by making minor changes to the law next year. It only needs to find a way to notify consumers without mentioning the vehicle's federal fuel economy rating, which Mr. Curran conceded is prohibited by U.S. law.

"The General Assembly could correct the problem by amending [the state law] to eliminate any reference to 'fuel economy' -- that is, a car's miles-per-gallon rating," Mr. Curran wrote in the opinion.

For example, a new car's sticker could refer to the vehicle's weight or cylinders in explaining why it is subject to a tax or rebate, he said.

Two state delegates from Montgomery County, Democrats Brian E. Frosh and Chris Van Hollen Jr., said they plan to take Mr. Curran's advice and introduce such legislation next session.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, is far from convinced by Mr. Curran.

Maryland's guzzler/sipper program steps on federal toes and can't be enforced even if state lawmakers find a way to skirt the fuel economy labeling issue, NHTSA chief counsel Paul Jackson Rice said yesterday.

"If every state comes up with a program that makes it very expensive to buy cars unless as directed, then how can you say that doesn't impact on car manufacturers and dealers?" he said.

"We are a safety agency," Mr. Rice said. "We consider fuel economy and clean air and the lives lost on the highway.

"Large cars are safer. If you have some steel around you, you're much better off."

Maryland's car and truck dealers agree, saying states shouldn't be meddling in this arena. They were prepared to file suit against the state if it tried to enforce the program.

The attorney general's opinion "saves the cost of litigation for the state as well as for us," said Joseph P. Carroll, executive vice president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association.

Mr. Carroll said his group would battle any future guzzler/sipper bill.

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