TOPEKA, Kan. — Using less gas is an advantage for the few Kansans who've bought electric cars, but a state legislator worried Tuesday about how the state will pay for road and bridge projects if consumers flock to the vehicles and stop paying gasoline taxes.
Rep. Tom Sloan's solution is for the state to impose a new fee on the power used by electric car and hybrid owners when they charge up their vehicles, either at home or in public charging stations. But a bill the Lawrence Republican is pushing received a cool reception during a House Energy and Utilities Committee hearing.
General Motors Co. opposes the idea, and a spokesman suggested such a tax could discourage electric car sales and help kill the industry in its infancy. Legislators also worried that car owners would be forced to spend hundreds of dollars to install separate meters in their homes.
But Sloan argued that Kansas should consider imposing such a fee before electric cars become a regular feature on the state's highways. GM said only two dozen Chevrolet Volts are registered with the state, and Sloan wondered aloud during his testimony how difficult legislators would find it to impose a new fee once electric cars and hybrids number in the tens of thousands in Kansas.
"Whether it's 24 Volt owners in Kansas or 24,000, should they be paying to use the roads on which they drive?" Sloan asked the committee. "If not now, when?"
The committee took no action on Sloan's bill, and Chairman Carl Dean Holmes, a Republican from Liberal, said he's not sure whether the measure will come up for a vote. Skepticism about it was bipartisan.
Under Sloan's bill, consumers who charge their electric or hybrid vehicles at home would be required to have a separate meter to track how much electricity they use. The Kansas Department of Transportation would set the fee so that it is equivalent to the state's taxes of 24 cents a gallon on gasoline and 26 cents a gallon on diesel. Sloan believes it could amount to less than 1 cent for each kilowatt hour of electricity.
GM spokesman Jeffrey Perry, who testified during the hearing, said the company knows of no state that has imposed such a tax.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in Arizona, Mississippi, Oregon and Washington considered proposals to impose new fees for electronic cars, and Texas considered starting a pilot program. None of the proposals passed. The NCSL says Kansas is the first to consider a tax on electricity use, while a tax on miles traveled is the popular idea in other states.
Jim Whitty, the manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation's office on alternative funding, said a fee for electricity would have to be based on a vehicle's use, with "on-board reporting," because a state can't control where a consumer charges up. His agency plans to present a new proposal for a vehicle mileage fee to Oregon legislators next year.
"We've looked at all alternatives because electric vehicles are not paying their share," he said.
In Kansas, spokesman Lindsey Douglas told the House committee that the Kansas Department of Transportation is concerned about relying heavily on motor fuels taxes to finance road and bridge projects in the future, because revenues are likely to decline as even gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles become more efficient. But Douglas said KDOT is waiting to see what ideas emerge around the nation.
Gasoline sales in Kansas peaked at more than 1.45 billion gallons in 1999, according to legislative researchers, and dropped to less than 1.25 billion gallons in 2010.
But Perry said imposing a new fee is premature and would send the wrong signal to consumers about whether they should buy electric vehicles or hybrids. Such a tax also would discourage auto manufacturers, he said.
"If we're not being shown that there's backing behind this by the state legislatures, why would we want to continue supporting this technology and pushing forward if what we're being told is, we're going to tax this to its death before it ever gets a chance to survive?" he said.
GM's concerns were an issue for some committee members, because its plant in Kansas City, Kan., employs about 3,900 workers.
"At a time period when we're trying to create jobs, we're attacking one of our best employers in the state," said Rep. Stan Frownfelter, a Kansas City Democrat. "We could be alienating one of our best friends."
Proposal to create a new fee for electric cars is HB 2455.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org