It’s refreshing when Idaho legislators admit passing a flawed law that wrongly cost Idaho households tens of thousands of dollars, and then write a law to fix that mistake. Here is House Bill 20 (passed in both chambers and headed to Gov. Butch Otter), and thanks to Rep. Stephen Harris, R-Meridian, for bringing the remedial bill and to all legislators who supported it after hearing from hundreds of Idahoans who were unfairly billed burdensome fees because we drive efficient vehicles.
At the end of their 2015 session, lawmakers passed a hastily written transportation bill that, among other things, singled out “hybrid” and “all-electric” vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf because we aren’t paying our “fair share” to fund roads and bridges because we don’t buy enough gasoline.
Lawmakers now say they never meant to penalize gasoline-powered cars like our 2009 Prius hybrid, but we just received the bill for a $75 surcharge to register that car and will soon be billed another $140 to register our all-electric, zero-emission 2013 Nissan Leaf, which is four years old and with 14,000 miles on the odometer is hardly tearing up Idaho’s roads.
That $215 in clean-vehicle penalties is on top of the regular registration fees we pay as our “fair share” for Idaho transportation needs. Most states incentivize clean-vehicle purchases because those vehicles help address serious air-quality problems. Idaho instead slaps owners with a surcharge. This is neither rational environmental nor rational transportation policy.
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Legislators realized their mistake last year, and to her credit Sen. Shawn Keough navigated a fix to the “Prius penalty” in 2016, only to see it die in the House Transportation Committee. This year, Rep. Harris told his Senate colleagues: “I can’t be in favor of a tax that is on its face unfair.” Sen. Chuck Winder, owner of two hybrids, told his colleagues, “People choose to own these cars for other reasons. It is a question in my mind of fairness and equity.”
As elsewhere, Idaho’s transportation funding mechanism must be overhauled to reflect how people are using our roads, which until now have been maintained largely on the backs of the fuel tax we pay at the pump. Vehicles today are more efficient — or gasoline free — so the old model for funding roads and bridges through fuel taxes is obsolete. Forward-looking states are finding ways to maintain their infrastructure without relying on a shrinking pot of gasoline-tax revenues. Idaho should join them.
The eventual electrification of our transportation fleet is irreversible, but not everyone can simply swap out their existing vehicles for zero-emission vehicles — so simply raising gasoline taxes is not a solution.
The Legislature must commit between sessions to explore thoughtful solutions to how a 21st century Idaho pays for its transportation infrastructure. It should also invite Idaho’s three major electric utilities — Idaho Power, Rocky Mountain Power and Avista — to explain to lawmakers their exciting plans on how they are preparing for our transportation future.
Ken and Ginny Miller of Boise publish Idaho Energy News and drive a 2006 Toyota Prius and 2013 Nissan Leaf.