SALT LAKE CITY – Cache County’s lawmakers are a tight-knit group, but even they disagree about some proposed legislation.
During a recent hearing before the House Transportation Committee on House Bill 209, Rep. Joel Ferry, R-District 1, voted to advance the proposal while Rep. Dan Johnson, R-District 4, dissented from the majority opinion of committee members.
Ferry called the proposal, which would raise the annual flat registration for electric vehicles to $300, a “reasonable approach” to the ongoing problem of gasoline taxes falling short of the revenues needed for statewide road construction and maintenance.
But Johnson believes that such a change is premature.
The pair sparred good-naturedly over their differing opinions Thursday during the weekly virtual town hall sponsored by the Cache County Republic Party.
County GOP chair Chris Booth sparked the discussion by reading a question from a local resident who felt that increasing the registration fee on electric vehicles would discourage sales of those vehicles and therefore contribute to air quality issues in cities like Logan.
But Ferry argued that funds for roads should come from the drivers that use them and that owners of electric vehicles should pay their fair share of those expenses.
“(Increased fees for alternate fuel vehicles) is a way the state can impose a charge for electric vehicles that would be similar to what a gasoline-powered vehicle is paying in fuel taxes, both at the federal and state level at the pump,” Ferry said.
The Legislature mandated registration surcharges for alternative fuel vehicles starting in 2020. Those fees are now $120 annually for electric vehicles, $52 for plug-in hybrids and $20 for gas-powered hybrids.
But owners of electric and hybrid vehicles had another option to enroll in the state’s Road Usage Charge (RUC) program. Under that system, those drivers would be charged 1.5 cents a mile for their actual mileage driven, up to the amount of the additional flat fee.
As proposed by Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-District 56, HB 209 would increase the annual flat fee for alternative fuel vehicles to $300 annually for electric vehicles, $260 for plug-in hybrids and $50 for gas-powered hybrids. Those fees would be in addition to a $44 registration fee for most cars and sport utility vehicles.
Ferry explained that those fee increases are in line with recommendations from legislative fiscal analysts who estimate that the average Utah driver pays about $380 a year in state and federal gas taxes.
“When we calculated how much the road use charge for an electric vehicle should be,” Ferry added, “we tried to sum up with a similar figure.
“Some vehicles get poorer mileage and some get better. But, on average, if you estimate the tax on 20,000 miles at 25 miles per gallon, it equals about $380 per year paid in fuel taxes.
“So, the drivers of electric vehicles will still actually be paying a little less than average.”
But Johnson believes that one year of experience with the road usage charge program isn’t long enough to justify that change.
“The reason that I voted against HB 209 is that…I don’t think that we’ve gathered enough data from the RUC yet.
“So, I think that we should continue to incentivize people (to drive electric vehicles). We’ve only got one or two percent of all the vehicles on the road being electric, so it’s not that big a deal.”
But Johnson argues that the road usage charge will be “a big deal” in the long run, because all Utah drivers may ultimately have to pay by the mile for road use.
“As it’s been pointed out by my colleagues,” Johnson said, “we’re going to have to transition to some other way (to pay for roads in Utah).
“What people don’t understand is that the amount of revenue we receive for gasoline sales doesn’t even pay for highway maintenance nowadays,” he added.
Sen. Chris Wilson, R-District 25, shared that concern, especially in view of predictions that some automotive giants may cease production of gasoline engines entirely by 2035.
“General Motors and other manufacturers are considering making that change even sooner in Europe and other locations,” said Wilson, the owner of a Ford and Nissan dealership in Logan.
“We know that we are going to have to transition to something else,” Johnson acknowledged. “But I’d like to have stronger data when we make that change. So, I think we should continue what we’re doing now, collect more data, get more people into the RUC and think about this again next year.”
Rep. Mike Petersen, R-District 3, echoed that cautious view.
“I’m not a fan of this proposal,” he said. “I don’t think that we’re ready to take this step. There’s a problem and I don’t know what the answer is yet. But I don’t think that this is the year to phase this kind of thing in.”
HB 209 is still pending approval by the full House before being sent to the Utah Senate for consideration.