Tax the Guzzler, Not the Gas

03/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A recent poll suggests that concern for the environment is taking a back seat to concerns about the economy. No surprise there. But it does mean that various proposals for a gas tax surcharge could easily meet furious resistance that could all too easily become divisive.

Taxing gas is like taxing food -- it's purely regressive, hitting the poorest hardest for what is -- in most of the country where there is no public transportation -- a necessity of life. Even worse, not only are lower income people often powerless to buy a new vehicle but they are also more likely to own older, increasingly inefficient, ones.

A pure mileage tax is no better -- at a time when the job market is shrinking and houses can't be sold, people are going to be driving longer distances for lower wages.

On the other hand, there is no downside to taxing the gas-guzzlers themselves. If applied to new cars, that tax would only hit those people who make an affirmative decision to buy low-mileage vehicles.

Any car that exceeds a targeted mpg would be taxed at an annual rate which would bring its gas price to either five dollars a gallon or two dollars a gallon above the average gas price in the state in which it's registered. The tax could easily be computed based on either an annual inspection during registration renewal or a declaration made under penalty of perjury.

Those who need low-mileage vehicles for work could be given a full or partial exemption. That way, a farmer or gardener could buy a truck without penalty while a recreational owner of the same vehicle would be subject to a hefty yearly surcharge.

Some portion of the revenue raised by the tax would be remanded to the states as payment for its administration (thus avoiding a new unfunded mandate).

Because it would only apply to new vehicles, those who can't buy a new car don't pay the penalty. But car manufacturers would be forewarned: any low-mileage model they produce will have a hard time moving off the showroom floor.

This would do nothing, of course, to reduce guzzlers now on the road. But nothing about this proposal precludes additional measures, such as a government buy-back or trade-in subsidy aimed at replacing low-mileage vehicles with efficient ones while stimulating car sales. That's a separate debate. In the meantime, we'd have a program that protected the financially vulnerable while creating a strong financial incentive to prevent new guzzlers from reaching the road.