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01.15.14 -- Virginia Senate panel advances bill to repeal hybrid car tax

Lawmakers in Virginia have taken the first step toward repealing the state’s hybrid car tax, a piece of last year’s broad transportation deal that has generated a great deal of anger over the past year.

On a vote of 10 to 5, members of the Senate Finance Committee agreed to move forward a bill that would roll back the $64 annual fee, which is intended to ensure that all car owners contribute equally to the repair of the state’s roads.

The provision “has been a thorn in many of our sides” since it was enacted, Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) told the committee. The idea behind the tax is that hybrid cars use less gas, and thus their owners pay less of the gas tax than drivers of conventional cars. But Wagner and other senators from both parties, some hybrid owners themselves, said there are conventional cars that get better mileage than many hybrids.

“This thing didn’t make any sense,” Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), a committee member, concurred.

Opponents of the change said that to repeal the tax was “pandering,” as Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) put it, to car manufacturers and hybrid owners.

Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) estimated that the $64 fee raises $8.6 million a year.

“I think it is premature for us to begin taking apart what was a very difficult piece of legislation to get passed,” said Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield). At the same time, he acknowledged that given the vagaries of mileage, “whether you call it a hybrid or not doesn’t mean a damn thing.” He suggested that taxes should be imposed by car weight and miles traveled, an idea some states have begun testing, but that it would have to happen on the national level first.

The $64 fee on electric cars, which do not use gas, remains in place under the bill put forward.

The bill moves to the full Senate for a vote. Republicans say similar legislation that Transportation Committee Chairman Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax) is behind is likely to pass in the House.