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Car tax rescue proposed Gaz guzzler law can be reworked, Curran contends


ROCKVILLE -- Maryland's groundbreaking new tax on gas guzzlers cannot take effect because of a "technicality," but that flaw could be ironed out by the legislature next year, the state attorney general said yesterday.

In releasing his 10-page opinion, J. Joseph Curran Jr. challenged federal transportation officials who say states cannot enact tax and rebate programs that encourage people to buy more fuel-efficient cars.

The Bush administration should "get out of the way" because Maryland intends to lead the nation in this area, said Mr. Curran, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor.

The fate of Maryland's so-called guzzler/sipper law is being watched nationwide by environmentalists, who want states to do what the Bush administration has been reluctant to do -- encourage automobile fuel efficiency.

The first of its kind in the nation, the Maryland law would have added a surcharge to the cost of gas guzzlers and given a rebate from the state's 5 percent titling tax to buyers of fuel-efficient cars.

Buyers would have faced a $100 surcharge for choosing a 1993 model-year car that got less than 21 miles per gallon but received a $50 rebate for purchasing a "sipper" that got more than 35 mpg.

At a news conference outside a Rockville courthouse, Mr. Curran said that he believed the General Assembly could get around "the feds" by making minor changes to the law next year. It only needs to find a way to notify consumers without mentioning the vehicle's federal fuel economy rating, which Mr. Curran conceded is prohibited by U.S. law.

"The General Assembly could correct the problem by amending [the state law] to eliminate any reference to 'fuel economy' -- that is, a car's miles-per-gallon rating," Mr. Curran wrote in the opinion.

For example, a new car's sticker could refer to the vehicle's weight or cylinders in explaining why it is subject to a tax or rebate, he said.

Two state delegates from Montgomery County, Democrats Brian Frosh and Chris Van Hollen Jr., said that they planned to take Mr. Curran's advice and introduce such legislation next session.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, is far from convinced by Mr. Curran.

Maryland's guzzler/sipper program steps on federal toes and can't be enforced even if state lawmakers find a way to skirt the fuel economy labeling issue, NHTSA chief counsel Paul Jackson Rice said yesterday.

"If every state comes up with a program that makes it very expensive to buy cars unless as directed, then how can you say that doesn't impact on car manufacturers and dealers?" he said.

"We are a safety agency," Mr. Rice said. "We consider fuel economy and clean air and the lives lost on the highway. Large cars are safer. If you have some steel around you, you're much better off."

Maryland's car and truck dealers agree, saying states shouldn't be meddling in this arena. They were prepared to file suit against the state if it tried to enforce the program.

The attorney general's opinion "saves the cost of litigation for the state as well as for us," said Joseph P. Carroll, executive vice president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association.

Mr. Carroll said his group would battle any future guzzler/sipper bill.

The controversial issue will likely face a tough road in the legislature next year. The program only passed this April after it was tacked onto a larger tax bill in the last minutes of a special session.

The guzzler law would have been a revenue-loser in its first two years but would have raised $15 million annually in later years.

Mr. Curran said he would defend the amended law if it is passed by the 1993 General Assembly.

Delegate Van Hollen said that he hoped other states considering guzzler/sipper programs would unite behind Mr. Curran's opinion.

Some groups did so almost immediately, among them the Union of Concerned Scientists and the non-profit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

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