House taps brakes on bill to hit electric and hybrid vehicles with a steep hike in state fees

After fierce opposition in debate, sponsor pulls the bill to rework it.

(Richard Vogel | AP file photo ) A Chevrolet Volt hybrid car charges at a ChargePoint charging station at a parking garage in Los Angeles on Oct. 17, 2018. A bill to raise registration fees on electric and hybrid cars ran into robust opposition Tuesday during Utah House debate.

After strong opposition during House debate, supporters temporarily hit the brakes Thursday on a bill that seeks to impose up to a five-fold increase on registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicles.

“This bill will [give] Utah the highest fees for electric vehicles in the entire nation,” complained Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper. “That is a wrong message to be sending in a state with some of the dirtiest air in the country.”

Such arguments pushed Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, to halt debate on his HB209, and he said he will try to rework it. “Some have brought up a point or two that I’m willing to look at,” he said after a parade of speakers had criticized it.

Christofferson, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said that electric cars and hybrids now totally or largely escape gasoline taxes that fund road maintenance. So, he said the proposed registration fee hikes would force them to pay more of what he says is their fair share.

He said he thought he had worked out most concerns about the bill with an amendment, which passed, to phase in higher fees over five years, instead of a big jump in the first year.

The bill proposed raising the fees for electric vehicles (such as Tesla, KIA Soul or Nissan Leaf) from $120 to $300, up 150%.

Registration fees for plug-in hybrids (such as a Chevy Volt or PHEV) would quintuple under the legislation,from $52 to $260.

And fees for hybrid electric vehicles (such as a Prius) would double from $20 to $40 in one year, but include no further increases in later years.

“This is the wrong message for Utahns. This is wrong for air quality,” Harrison argued.

She said when Georgia raised its fees on electric vehicles, sales of such cars dropped by 83%. “We do not want to enact policy that disincentivizes people to clean up the air by buying cleaner vehicles.” (The Utah Taxpayers Association later asserted that the drop in Georgia was from a loss of tax incentives more than an increase in fees.)

But Christofferson reasoned that even with the increases proposed, electric vehicles would still pay 25% less in overall taxes and fees compared to gasoline and diesel vehicles. “They’ll have a benefit of that, and it will be an incentive to them. But it helps pay for the roads.”

Harrison said that while she agrees that gasoline taxes are not raising enough to fund highways, she said electric and hybrid vehicles are not to blame. “The real truth is no one’s paying their fair share for the roads.”

She said only 0.5% of all Utah drivers now use an electric vehicle. “Slapping them with these kinds of increased fees is a drop in the bucket,” she said. “This is not going to solve the underlying problem that we all agree on, that our transportation fund, the gas tax, is not adequately funding transportation. We need a more comprehensive solution.”

The fee increases for electric vehicles, Harrison said, would be “just punitive to the very tiny percentage of drivers that are doing their part to clean up our air.”

She also argued that the move is premature, noting that the Legislature has ordered the Utah Department of Transportation to provide a plan by this June about how to completely replace the gasoline tax in 10 years by shifting to a “road user charge,” where drivers pay a fee for every mile they drive. UDOT is currently conducting a pilot program on such fees with volunteers who drive electric or hybrid cars.

“That’s due out in just a couple of months in June. And we should wait to use good data to make good decisions,” Harrison said.

Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, also argued that the bill — as it seeks to increase road funding — fails to figure in that “there’s clearly an economic benefit to clean air.”

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, also criticized raising fees on hybrid vehicles, saying they already pay a significant amount of gasoline taxes. She said the proposed fee increases on top of that would make them pay as much or more overall as similarly sized all-gasoline cars.