Gas guzzler law heads for tune-up or junkyard

January 10, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Like a car recalled for a glitch, Maryland's groundbreaking gas guzzler law is due for repairs this month, and environmental groups are hoping to persuade the governor to be the chief mechanic.

The controversial law would tax purchases of cars that guzzle gas, while handing a modest rebate to people who buy fuel-efficient models. Enacted last year by the General Assembly, the statute subsequently ran into a roadblock erected by the Bush Administration and was never implemented.

The tax-rebate program was shelved after federal transportation officials insisted that Maryland doesn't have the authority to regulate automobile fuel efficiency. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. disagreed, arguing in a written opinion the law could be repaired if relatively minor changes were made.

Enter the General Assembly, which will find the law back in its hands when the 90-day legislative session begins Wednesday. At stake in the debate are millions of dollars worth of highway and transit projects state officials had expected to finance with guzzler tax revenues.

"Right now the law's in a coma, and our opponents want to put a pillow over its face," said Delegate Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, a leading advocate of the measure. "Any way you look at it, it's going to be an uphill battle."

If the law is rehabilitated as Mr. Curran suggests is possible -- and stands up to a court challenge likely to be mounted by the auto industry, if not by the federal government -- Maryland would be the first state in the nation to tax the purchase of a car based on its mileage rating.

Mr. Frosh and other supporters of the measure believe Gov. William Donald Schaefer holds the key. Officials within the state transportation and environmental departments like the law, state house insiders say, but the governor remains undecided.

Last year, the so-called "guzzler-sipper" measure was added late in the legislative session to a bill raising the gas tax by 5 cents. Governor Schaefer signed the whole thing into law without expressing much enthusiasm for the guzzler provision.

As of late last week, the governor was reportedly undecided about whether to introduce the corrective bill this time around or support it if someone else does.

"He's not gotten all the information from the Department of Transportation yet," said Steven Larsen, a member of the governor's legislative staff. "But no, he was not a particularly ardent supporter of it [last year]."

Mr. Larsen said one of the governor's concerns is the future of the General Motors Corp. van assembly plant at Broening Highway. The plant escaped recent cutbacks by the automaker, but Mr. Schaefer is worried that the guzzler tax could be held against Maryland by GM in the future.

That notion irks environmentalists, who note that opponents used the same reasoning last year to help kill the proposal to adopt California's tougher auto emission standards in Maryland.

"There are a lot of jobs at stake, but our little guzzler-sipper bill is a drop in the bucket when it comes to all the factors that will decide the fate of the Broening Highway plant," said Nita Settina, a lobbyist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Even opponents would agree that a guzzler law won't have much immediate impact simply because the penalties and incentives are so small.

During the first two years, the law does little more than break even. Buyers would face a $100 guzzler surcharge on top of their 5 percent titling tax when the new car has an Environmental Protection Agency mileage rating of less than 21 miles per gallon. They would get a $50 rebate if it gets more than 35 mpg.

In two years, the standards would become slightly tougher: the typical high-mileage car would qualify for a rebate of about $100, while the average gas guzzler would face no more than a $200 tax.

Still, transportation officials estimate the measure would start earning $15 million to $20 million annually for the state in three years. They have, in essence, already committed the money by designing their long-term road and transit construction program with an assumption that guzzler revenues would be available.

That means if the guzzler law is not fixed, some projects may have to be delayed or canceled -- a decision that could give the administration significant leverage with the General Assembly.

But automobile manufacturers and dealers are organizing against the bill, which they believe unfairly penalizes them and accomplishes little. Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, a Baltimore County Democrat, has already introduced legislation to take the guzzler-sipper law off the books entirely.

Opponents argue that President-elect Bill Clinton is likely to have a different attitude toward auto fuel efficiency than the Bush administration. Doesn't it make more sense, they say, to wait and see if the Clinton White House raises the mileage standards on all manufacturers before legislating at the state level?

"The biggest paradox in all this is that if the law worked as it was designed to work, namely cause people to use fuel efficient cars, the state would get no money," said Joseph P. Carroll, executive vice-president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association. "If, however, it raised the money, then it wouldn't achieve the environmental goals."

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