Hey, who's up for helping Big Brother in Minnesota?

With gasoline prices skyrocketing and tougher CAFE standards on the horizon, people will be driving less and using less gasoline when they do.  That’s a good thing, right?  Better efficiency and less driving mean lower levels of emissions, and will help keep prices stable, even if the cars we drive become less safe in order to meet those CAFE standards imposed by Washington.

Unfortunately, as states are discovering, more efficiency also means lower tax revenues as drivers have to fill their tanks less often.  Democrats have proposed passing a mileage tax on state and national levels to counter the dropoff in revenue, but one main practical obstacle is that gaining the data from millions of cars will be expensive, clumsy, and almost certainly unreliable.  Minnesota realizes this, which is why it put out a call to masochists to participate in a pilot program to help them iron out the wrinkles:

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is looking for 500 people to test technology that could someday be used to collect a mileage-based user fee.

Mn/DOT anticipates a fee on road usage might someday be necessary as more fuel efficient and hybrid cars are on the road, decreasing revenue from the gas tax. …

Recruiting for the Minnesota Road Fee Test will begin in May, with research starting in July. Volunteers must be from Hennepin or Wright County. Drivers will be given smart phones with a GPS application that has been programmed to allow them to submit information. Volunteers will get a small stipend for expenses associated with the test.

The research is scheduled to end by December 2012.

In case you are wondering, there is little doubt that Minnesota can find 500 people to participate in this study.  All they really need to do is go into the garages of Hennepin and Wright counties and look for “Happy to Pay for a Better Minnesota” bumper stickers (yes, that’s no joke either) and knock on the front doors of the first 500 they find.  What’s that you say — that would be an invasion of privacy?  Of course it would, but not much more so than tracking systems for mileage taxes.

As I wrote last month, there isn’t any other way to administer this program, although I was writing about it as a national program:

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?

It’s a bad idea on many levels.  At least the gas tax is easily administered, doesn’t involve disclosures of private information, and requires no end-of-year accounting.  If the government intends to enforce higher efficiency standards on drivers, it shouldn’t add a monumental invasion of privacy on top of it to protect its revenue stream.  Minnesotans should resist enabling Big Brother.

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