There is a lot more involved in the federal government's attempt to stifle Maryland's new "gas guzzler" tax on automobile purchases than is obvious at first glance. The tax itself may not amount to much for the next few years. It was diluted considerably in the General Assembly to get it passed this year. In fact, the tax may have little practical effect for the next couple of years. The penalty for buying a car that burns fuel wastefully or the reward for buying one that is fuel-efficient are not significant until 1995. As a tax it will raise little for the state treasury in its first few years.
But there is a serious threat to federalism in Washington's argument that it has preempted the regulation of fuel economy, meaning the states can't legislate about it. Legally the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration may have a strong case. Just this month the Supreme Court ruled that states can't regulate airline fare advertisements which they think are deceptive. There are similarities between those state laws and Maryland's gas guzzler tax. But there are also differences. The advertising case dealt with forcing airlines to do something. The gas tax is imposed on Maryland consumers, not on the automobile manufacturers. Reasonable people can discern a difference there, even if Washington bureaucrats can't.
Maryland's gas guzzler law, scheduled to take effect July 1, is the first in the nation. As such, it has attracted the attention of other states wanting to go further than Washington has in making fuel-efficient cars attractive to buyers. There are many subjects on which the states are permitted to impose stricter standards than Congress legislates nationally. The most obvious comparison is stronger auto anti-pollution devices, pioneered in California. For Washington to assert that its primary jurisdiction in such matters handcuffs the states is detrimental to local initiative.
This is especially true when it comes to dealing with fuel-wasteful automobiles. The Reagan and Bush administrations have caved in several times to entreaties from Detroit that the automobile manufacturers can't meet fuel-efficiency standards their foreign competitors reach with ease. The argument for federal primacy might have some merit if the Bush administration had a national energy policy that could be impaired by states going their own way. Instead the administration has abdicated its leadership role. If enlightened states want to pick it up for the benefit of their own citizens, Washington should not be permitted to stifle them.