So, another new tax rears its ugly head. And it’s being pushed, oddly enough, by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, a group Hoosiers can usually count on to look skeptically at all new government revenue proposals.
The beast in question is the Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMT, tax, and it’s under study in several states and being flirted with by the U.S. Transportation Department. Motorists currently provide road maintenance funds through taxes on gasoline purchases. The basic idea of a VMT is that motorists would be taxed directly on the miles they drive. Supposedly the VMT would be a replacement for the current 18 cents-a-gallon gas tax, but the way these things go, it could be used to supplement that tax, heaven help us.
Where to begin in listing the problems of this proposal?
On first hearing, it seems like an idea even conservatives and libertarians could buy into. It would amount to a user fee, with the biggest users paying the most money. Who doesn’t see the fairness of that? But the current system already taxes drivers by the number of miles they drive, if indirectly. Those who drive the most buy the most gasoline, do they not?
The current system also has the advantage of encouraging fuel efficiency. Those who drive, say, a hybrid getting 46 miles per gallon face a lot less pain at the gas pump than those who drive a 16 miles-per-gallon pickup. And the higher gas prices go, the more people buy fuel-efficient cars.
The current system is simplicity itself. You buy gas, you pay the tax, period. The new system would be, to put it kindly, complicated. Motorists would either have to keep detailed records of their driving or have a GPS device installed that is accessible by government officials on demand.
“Accessible on demand” – just think about that for a moment. Even in ordinary times, that would have Orwellian implications. And after revelations that the National Security Agency is doing everything it can to keep tabs on all of us, the idea that the government will know everything about our travel is downright scary.
Yes, there is a legitimate problem to address. Because of greater fuel efficiency, the slow economy, rising gasoline prices and other factors, necessary highway funding is down; if electric cars become a part of our future, the problem will just get worse.
But let’s be careful not to create more problems than we solve. The Indiana Chamber hastens to say it is only recommending the state study the possibility of a VMT. Fine. Study it for a long, long time. Study it to death.