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Electric cars spark review of gas tax

By Matt Pommer

The Madison Gas and Electric utility serving the Madison area has established eight charging stations at which people can plug in their electric cars.

More charging stations, according to the utility, are on the way.

Nissan and Chevrolet are producing electric plug-in cars, and news accounts indicate there is a strong demand for the vehicles. Thats not surprising, given talk that gasoline prices could top $4 per gallon.

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Paying for the transportation system is one of the trickier tax issues before elected officials. The federal government collects a tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, and Wisconsin collects 32.9 cents per gallon, according to state officials. Two cents of the state tax are used for environmental cleanup linked to service stations.

Wisconsin’s gas tax is the third highest in the nation, according to the latest report by the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles. But Wisconsin slips to 10th when all taxes and fees are included.

Overall comparisons are difficult because many local communities across the nation collect additional fees. Based on fuel use for a late-model sedan driving 15,000 miles, the DMV made this estimate of annual per-vehicle gasoline taxes in neighboring states: Illinois at $542 per year; Minnesota at $487; Iowa at $420; Michigan at $366; and Wisconsin at $319.

The annual car registration fee in Wisconsin is $75. The latest report by the DMV puts the fees for a late model sedan at $99 in Illinois, $123 in Michigan, $270 in Iowa and $287 in Minnesota.

Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota base their registration fees on the vehicle age and its value. The owner of a new Mercedes pays a lot more than the owner of a 1997 Chevrolet.

Forty years ago, then-Gov. Patrick Lucey suggested making the value of the vehicle an ingredient in the Wisconsin car registration fee. New car dealers rushed to oppose the concept, and folks with shiny new cars thought it was a terrible idea. Wisconsin is one of 29 states with a flat-fee car registration.

How will Wisconsin react to the coming of electric cars? Many of their owners may end up not paying gasoline taxes.It should be noted that owners of hybrid cars, with their 40-plus mpg, already are paying less for travel.

Environmentalists say continued reliance on the gasoline tax in Wisconsin provides financial incentives to buy the hybrids and electric cars. Further, some have advocated raising state and federal taxes on gasoline to help fight global warming.

Higher gasoline taxes could push inflation higher, but it also could help repair and build new and safer roads. In that sense, higher gas taxes would amount to an economic stimulus.

Matt Pommer worked as reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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