Dumb ideas never die in Washington, DC. They just get stuck in committee. Proving that once again is outgoing Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), attempting to revive an idea for a new tax that was so intrusive and unwieldy that even Barack Obama had to disavow it two years ago when his Transportation Secretary started pushing the notion. Conrad points to a new CBO study saying that taxing Americans on their car mileage will provide a windfall for the federal government:
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) this week released a report that said taxing people based on how many miles they drive is a possible option for raising new revenues and that these taxes could be used to offset the costs of highway maintenance at a time when federal funds are short.
The report discussed the proposal in great detail, including the development of technology that would allow total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to be tracked, reported and taxed, as well as the pros and cons of mandating the installation of this technology in all vehicles.
“In the past, the efficiency costs of implementing a system of VMT charges — particularly the costs of users’ time for slowing and queuing at tollbooths — would clearly have outweighed the potential benefits from more efficient use of highway capacity,” CBO wrote. “Now, electronic metering and billing are making per-mile charges a practical option.”
The report was requested by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who held a hearing on transportation funding in early March. In that hearing, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the Obama administration is hoping to spend $556 billion over the next six years, much of which would go to federal transportation improvement projects.
A “practical option” for whom, exactly? Perhaps for the IRS, but certainly not for taxpayers. One shudders to think what happens when the IRS gets your annual mileage wrong and a taxpayer disputes the record. Where were you on the night of April 19th, Canarsie? We show you drove 6.3 miles to Bada-Bing Strip Club in New Jersey. Even if exact destinations aren’t recorded (earlier suggestions were to use GPS devices), the taxpayer would get hit with a massive bill during the annual tax-preparation ritual with little or no chance to dispute the claims of the government.
Plus, let’s talk about equipment costs, both private and public. This new tax system would require tracking equipment in every vehicle, which would mean retrofit costs for current vehicles and higher prices for new cars immediately. What are the unemployed supposed to do — stop driving? That should help when it comes to looking for work.
The government will either have to use GPS devices (that will track and record destination data) or install tollbooth passes every few miles on every road in America. The IRS will also have to set up an enforcement bureau to ensure that drivers don’t disable their tracking systems. In California, this meant that every driver had to get biennial emission-control equipment inspections, an expensive waste of time and money for most drivers. Will the IRS, which is just now branching out into the health-insurance inspection business, add a national DMV bureau as well?
Finally, do we really want to live in a country where the federal government virtually follows you everywhere you go? Growing up in the Cold War, that’s what we were told the Soviet Union was like. It will be the high-tech version of internal travel documents, or at the very least puts that power in the hands of the federal government.
This is the reason we use the gasoline tax for transportation costs. It doesn’t require the government to track the movements of citizens on a moment-to-moment basis, and it doesn’t require any record-keeping for either the drivers or the government bureau. It’s a point-of-sale transaction that proceeds transparently and relieves the taxpayer of a lump-sum burden at the end of the year.
The problem with the federal budget isn’t a lack of resources. It’s a lack of will to use those resources wisely. The government doesn’t need to track the movements of more than 300 million people to squeeze more revenue out of them — it needs to spend less of their money in the first place.
Update: California emissions certifications are/were biennial, not semiannual; I knew that but chose the wrong word. Thanks to those who pointed out the error.