Utah House kills bill to hike fees on electric, hybrid vehicles

Many argue reducing pollution is worth more than road funds that would have been raised.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This 2016 file photo shows drivers lined up for their morning coffee as their idling vehicles spew tailpipe emissions. Utah lawmakers on Monday killed a bill to dramatically hike state registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles — a move that opponents warned was contrary to Utahns' desire for cleaner air.

Showing how important reducing air pollution now is to Utah lawmakers, the House voted 44-27 on Monday to kill a bill that had sought to impose up to a five-fold increase on registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicles.

Even amending the bill to slash the proposed fee hikes and spread them out over several years could not save HB209 against arguments that it would hurt the sales of clean-air vehicles, and thus cripple efforts to reduce air pollution.

The proposed hike “disincentivizes behavior by drivers that has a significant impact on our air quality,” said Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City.

“When we talk about clean air, for me, it’s personal,” said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City. “When we had inversions in December, my wife could not go outside because she had a hard time breathing. … My wife is not alone. There are thousands of people on the Wasatch Front who are having a hard time breathing.”

Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, had proposed the fee increases by arguing 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.

“Why should gas vehicle owners continue to subsidize the road maintenance for electric vehicles?” he asked. He said even with the increases, owners of clean-fuel vehicles would still pay much less in taxes for roads than gasoline cars. Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, estimated the savings at $193 a year.

But Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, had argued in earlier debate that the initially proposed changes would give Utah the highest fees in the nation on electric and hybrid vehicles, and “that is a wrong message to be sending in a state with some of the dirtiest air in the country.”

The bill originally proposed raising the fees for electric vehicles (such as Tesla, KIA Soul or Nissan Leaf) from $120 to $300, up 150%. Christofferson attempted a compromise to raise them instead to $240, and to spread that out over four years instead of one big jump.

Registration fees for plug-in hybrids (such as a Chevy Volt or PHEV) originally would have quintupled under the legislation, from $52 to $260, but Christofferson lowered that to $180 to try to save the bill.

And fees for hybrid electric vehicles (such as a Prius) initially would have risen from $20 to $50, up 150% — but Christofferson discarded that entirely as he tried to rally support.

Several lawmakers also argued that only 2% of the vehicles now on Utah roads are electric or hybrids, so raising fees on them would not help raise much for roads anyway.

That “makes me question if the juice is worth the squeeze on this one,” said Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden.

Also, several lawmakers noted that raising fees may be premature because 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. They said it may find ways to fund roads without fees that discourage clean-air vehicles.

UDOT is currently conducting a pilot program on such fees with volunteers who drive electric or hybrid cars.