Dumb Idea of the Week: Taxing Priuses Instead of Gas Guzzlers

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 10 2013 2:44 PM

Dumb Idea of the Week: Repealing the Gas Tax Because Too Many People Drive Priuses

Virginia's governor is concerned that all those Priuses pose a threat to the state's gas tax revenues. His solution: Get rid of the gas tax.
Virginia's governor is concerned that all those Priuses pose a threat to the state's gas tax revenues. His solution: Get rid of the gas tax and charge Prius drivers an annual fee.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Virginia has a problem. Its gas tax isn’t bringing in enough money to pay for all of the state’s road and transit infrastructure needs. If it doesn’t do something about the problem, its transportation system will run out of money in the next five years. Oh, and by the way, its current 17.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax is one of the country’s lowest, far less than the national average of 30 cents per gallon. The state hasn’t raised it since 1986, and it doesn’t adjust for inflation.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Ask a reasonably intelligent eight-year-old what Virginia should do about this problem, and odds are the answer will be, “raise the gas tax—duh.” But reasonably intelligent eight-year-olds do not make policy in Virginia. Instead the state has Republican Governor Robert F. McDonnell, who has devised what he is convinced is a far cleverer scheme: drop the gas tax altogether and tax shoppers instead. Oh, and Prius owners.

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The problem, in McDonnell’s eyes, is that fewer people are driving gas-guzzling cars and SUVs these days. Some, including perhaps our eight-year-old friend, might see that as a good thing. After all, gas-guzzlers pollute the air, alter the climate, and drive U.S. dependence on countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, not to mention risky offshore drilling. To McDonnell, however, this is a fatal flaw. Thanks to those pesky hybrids and fuel-economy standards, the gas tax has become “a stagnant revenue source.

Unless, of course, you raise it. That’s the common-sense solution that one fellow Republican, State Sen. John Watkins, proposed in November. Another fine option would be to leave it in place and find other revenue sources to supplement it. Instead, McDonnell thinks it’s high time to shift the burden of paying for the state’s roads from people who buy gas to people who buy, well, everything else. His plan is to replace the gas tax with an increase in sales tax while also shifting money from other state programs. He’d leave in place a state tax on diesel fuel, which everyone knows is un-American anyway. And, perhaps as a scrap of red meat to conservatives inclined to fight the sales tax hike, he wants to throw in a $100 annual fee on drivers of hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles. The only thing missing from McDonnell’s proposal is a special highway lane exclusively for single-driver SUVs.

My Slate colleague Matt Yglesias calls the whole package “the most straightforwardly terrible policy I've heard in a while.” Wonkette calls it “hippie-punching.” The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann mounts an earnest defense of its merits, and it still comes out looking bad. Congratulations, Gov. McDonnell. Your plan is a no-brainer for dumb idea of the week.

Past dumb ideas of the week:

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