LePage is right: no free ride for hybrids, electric cars

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John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.

Gov. Paul LePage was pretty impressive during his State of the State Address last week.

Not only did he deliver a strong speech filled with good ideas, Maine’s pugnacious, unapologetic and slimmed-down top executive delivered it in a way that shows he’s ready to fight to the end.

And that end is coming soon, with LePage already in his stretch run. Even after seven long years of championing a conservative course, with penny-pinching and common sense serving as guideposts along the way, the governor is still sticking to his values, envisioning additional conservative approaches.

As he laid out in his nearly 90-minute address, part of his 2018 agenda will focus on making sure the tax burden is distributed fairly. For years, we’ve heard of LePage’s efforts to get able-bodied adults off the welfare rolls in an effort to direct funding to those who truly need it, but now LePage is targeting two more groups.

One is electric vehicle owners, who are exempt from paying gas taxes and therefore aren’t paying their fair share of maintaining the roads they rely on. And the other is land trusts, which have been exempt from paying property tax on the land they own and manage.

Naturally, both groups feel threatened by LePage’s proposals. They’ve enjoyed a free ride, and now LePage seems like the grim reaper come to ruin the party. But while he’s already getting blowback, LePage should be admired for at least trying to explore ways to make sure our roads are paid for by everyone who uses them and that all property owners pay some share of the tax burden.

With so much land conserved by land trusts, and therefore off the local tax rolls, remaining property owners have to pick up the slack for local government and schools. Same with the gas tax; with more electric vehicles and hybrids on the roads, it makes sense to figure out ways to share the tax burden.

While the attempt to tax land trusts in a state that values open space should make for an intriguing legislative battle this year, electric vehicle owners, especially, should have known their day was coming. Governments around the country are trying to figure out how to handle the shrinking gasoline tax revenue stream caused by gas-free electrics as well as hybrids, which use relatively little gas. It’s good to see Maine trying to work out an equitable fix, especially since the number of electric vehicles will only continue to grow.

Through LD 1806, the Maine Department of Transportation is proposing annual fees of $150 for hybrids and $250 for electric vehicles. With the state’s gasoline tax set at 30 cents per gallon and the federal gas tax adding an additional 18 cents, these fees are an attempt to fill the gap in highway funding. And despite opponents who say the fees should be around $85 per year, the math seems to support the state’s proposal.

Licensed Maine drivers, according to the Federal Highway Administration, drove an average of 15,420 miles in 2016 (the national average was 13,476, according to the agency.) So, if gas tax totals 48 cents per gallon and the average gasoline-powered car gets 25 miles per gallon, the average Mainer uses 616 gallons of gas per year and pays about $295 per year in combined state and federal gas taxes, $184 of that in state gas tax. The state’s proposal, if my math is right, seems fair.

Electric vehicles are great, and I applaud (and am jealous of) anyone who has one, but just because they reduce pollution doesn’t mean the owners should be somehow exempt from paying for roads. As much as I hate any additional fees and taxes imposed by the government, fees seem appropriate when legitimate taxes are being avoided, even by a well-meaning group.

And, let us not forget, oil-derived electric vehicles, even the one SpaceX shot into space two weeks ago from Cape Canaveral, are not the future of transportation. They are a mere stepping stone to a future completely free of oil. According to the prognosticators, tomorrow’s vehicles will be completely pollution-free and powered by hydrogen or something similarly non-toxic. We’ll look back at the era of electrics and chuckle at the folks who thought they were doing the planet a favor by fueling their transportation needs via a power cord plugged into a garage wall socket connected to the nearest coal- or natural gas-fired power plant.

Until that future free of gasoline arrives, the government is right to explore ways to make sure all motorists pay their share for road maintenance.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.