Truth can be costly in terms of car taxes


Would you lie to save $300?

Before you answer that question, consider the plight of Jean Storrs of Baltimore, who, along with her husband, moved here from Texas last fall.

The couple had bought a car in the Lone Star State a year earlier and paid a "hefty sum" in taxes on it at the time, she writes. Imagine their surprise when they discovered they had to pay $400 more for the Maryland excise tax, a titling tax based on 5 percent of the car's book value.

"It . . . seems to me to be double taxation, which I understood was not allowed in this country," Ms. Storrs writes. "Why should I have to pay $400 for bringing one of my possessions into the state?"

The fact is, she didn't.

Since the mid-1980s, Maryland law has given people in Ms. Storrs' situation a break. They are given credit for the taxes they paid in their state of origin when they register their cars here but still must pay a minimum Maryland tax of $100.

There's a catch, however. Maryland law requires that vehicles be registered within 30 days of arrival in the state.

The registration form asks: When did you move to Maryland? If the answer is greater than 30 days, you get no credit.

Nowhere on the form is the applicant told about the 30-day rule. According to Motor Vehicle Administration records, Ms. Storrs indicated she had already been living in the state for four months.

Had she lied, she would have paid only $100 instead of $400.

What would you have done?

As for the fairness issue, Maryland's excise tax is comparable to those of most other states. The equivalent tax in Texas is higher than Maryland's.

"There should be some tax liability to bring a vehicle to Maryland or, if you live here, adding a car to the road," says MVA Administrator Marshall Rickert. "It's a highway user's revenue."

Registering complaint

Another letter on the subject of vehicle registration comes from Robert F. Foor of Millers, who is unhappy with the new $8 fee he was recently assessed.

"I did not read or hear about this tax after it was signed into law by the governor," writes Mr. Foor. "How many cars are charged the $8?"

The answer is all of them.

The fee was approved by the General Assembly in April to help balance the state's budget. It is listed separately on the registration renewal notice because the money is for a special purpose, helping finance the statewide emergency medical system.

The legislature's philosophy was this: Since highway accidents generate many of the trauma cases served by the emergency medical system, it was appropriate that vehicle owners be made to pay as a kind of insurance policy.

The money helps keep MedEvac helicopters flying and pays some of the training costs of emergency medical technicians and volunteer fire and rescue squads.

The fee was added at the same time the MVA switched half of its registrations from every year to every other year. That means some vehicle owners have seen their registration costs double, along with an additional $16 fee (two years of the $8 annual fee for emergency medicine).

Mr. Rickert of the MVA tells us that the system has been in place for five months now and that he averages one letter of complaint a week.

For the MVA, that's considered a good week.

Smoke-free tolls

We put out an urgent call to our fellow commuters.

Be kind to your local toll collectors. They've been under a lot of stress lately.

The executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority decided recently that Gov. William Donald Schaefer's executive order banning smoking in state buildings should apply to tollbooths, too.

Needless to say, this has not been good news to toll-collecting smokers.

"Why is he taking the privilege of smoking out [of] our little domain when no one else is out there?" asks a collector who requests that her name not be used. "If he doesn't want us to smoke, he should put us in a withdrawal program or something."

Our toll collector tells us toll-collecting is not the glamorous life it may appear to be. Collectors make between $15,700 and $23,500 and, like other state employees, haven't seen a raise in years.

They are expected to make up to 300 transactions an hour in peak times, keep up with toll evaders and put up with motorists who do such things as expose themselves or glue their money together.

Tom Freeburger, a spokesman for the authority, says the decision was meant to protect other toll collectors from secondhand smoke when they come in to relieve a collector. Toll employees are still allowed to smoke in an outdoor area during their two daily 15-minute breaks or during their half-hour lunch period.

Keep in touch

Write to the Intrepid Commuter, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278. Please include your name and telephone number so that we can reach you if we have any questions.

Or use your push-button phone to call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at 783-1800, and enter Ext. 4305. Call 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County.

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