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MARYLAND TOLD TO HALT TAX ON GAS GUZZLERS

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Federal officials have told Maryland not to impose its new gas-guzzler automobile tax, a levy similar to those being considered by several other states to help conserve energy and fight air pollution.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the tax on low-mileage cars goes against federal guidelines to protect automobile manufacturers from differing state standards, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran said Tuesday.Frank Bishop, executive director of the National Association of State Energy Officials, said California and several other states considering similar laws would back Maryland.

"If Maryland fights this, there are going to be a lot of folks in their support," Bishop said.

The law was to have gone into effect July 1.

The Maryland lawmaker who wrote it, Delegate Chris Van Hollen Jr., said the Bush administration "professes to be trying to put together an energy policy and environmental policy, yet it has nothing better to do than challenge state statutes designed to save energy and protect the environ-ment."

Janet S. Hathaway, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said she suspected the Competitiveness Council, headed by Vice President Dan Quayle, was behind the move.

"It fits the pattern of other fuel-economy actions that have been stopped or interfered with by the Office of Management and Budget and the Competitiveness Council," she said.

Paul Jackson Rice of the NHTSA said his agency acted only to protect the right of Congress to pass such laws.

Under the measure passed by the Maryland General Assembly this spring, buyers of new vehicles would pay a $100 surcharge on titling taxes for vehicles that get less than 21 miles per gallon. A $50 rebate would go to buyers of cars that get more than 35 miles per gallon.