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

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.


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:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

The Best Thing About the People’s Climate March in NYC

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

John Oliver Debunks the Miss America Pageant’s Claim That It Gives Out $45 Million in Scholarships

Trending News Channel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 22 2014 1:29 PM “That’s Called Jim Crow” Philip Gourevitch on America’s hypocritical interventions in Africa.
Sept. 22 2014 1:37 PM Subprime Loans Are Back! And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 22 2014 1:22 PM Is Arabic Really Just One Language? 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM Escaping the Extreme Christian Fundamentalism of "Quiverfull"
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Sept. 22 2014 2:12 PM Crusader, Sans Cape The superhero trappings of Gotham are just a clever disguise.
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 12:14 PM Family Court Rules That You Can Serve Someone With Legal Papers Over Facebook
  Health & Science
Sept. 22 2014 12:15 PM The Changing Face of Climate Change Will the leaders of the People’s Climate March now lead the movement?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.