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Vehicle mile tax resolution fails, as one Republican sides with Dems

Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, claims that Prescott Republican Sen. Ken Bennett's misgivings about a resolution to prevent government entities from taxes based on vehicle miles traveled are based on misinformation as he speaks on the Senate floor on March 6, 2024. Screenshot via azleg.gov

A Republican who had misgivings about a GOP push to ask voters to ban taxes based on vehicle miles traveled joined with Democrats to vote down the measure, sparking anger from one of the bill’s sponsors. 

Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, said he supported the spirit of the resolution to stop government entities from limiting the free travel of Arizonans, but he foresaw multiple unintended consequences. 

Bennett said that he tried to speak with the sponsors about wording changes to mitigate his concerns, but was met with flat-out refusal. 

“When I deal with anyone that says, ‘No, this bill has to be exactly how I put it together and can’t have any changes,’ that gives me huge pause,” Bennett said before voting against the measure on Wednesday afternoon. “I continue to get no movement or accommodation for any of these reasonable concerns.” 

Following some heated words from members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, House Concurrent Resolution 2018 was voted down 15-15. Bennett was the only Republican who voted against it. 

Arizona Freedom Caucus leader Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, promised to bring the resolution back for another vote. How that will happen remains to be seen, as the only way this measure could be reconsidered is if Bennett changes his mind.

The resolution, proposed by Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, with a mirror resolution sponsored by Hoffman in the Senate, would ban government entities from tracking vehicle miles traveled by its citizens, bar taxes based on miles traveled and would stop government bodies from attempting to limit vehicle miles traveled in any way. 

Lawmakers who backed the measure described the freedom to travel by motor vehicle as fundamentally American. 

“Getting behind the driving wheels of our cars and driving without the burden of calculating a mile cost truly feels like freedom, because it is freedom,” said Republican Sen. Wendy Rogers, of Flagstaff. 

Rogers said she believes there is a “looming threat to limit how much people drive.” 

The legislation is meant to preemptively ban the implementation of “15-minute cities,” an urban planning concept meant to ensure no one in a city has to travel more than 15 minutes for essential services. Since the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were implemented in 2020, it has turned into a boogeyman for the far right, with conspiracy theories that the idea is actually part of a global plot to allow governments to control their populations

The furor around 15-minute cities is the latest version of fear mongering around national and global sustainability initiatives, and it echoes outrage on the right from a decade or so ago, when a  similar outcry was raised over Agenda 21, a 1992 non-binding United Nations resolution to promote sustainable development worldwide.

Another Freedom Caucus member, Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, pointed to low-emission zones in London, where drivers whose vehicles don’t meet certain standards have to pay a fee to travel, and congestion pricing in New York City, which charges drivers a fee for entering traffic-heavy areas of Manhattan, as examples of these practices already being implemented. 

Both efforts are aimed at promoting cleaner air, and the one in New York is meant to ease the city’s notorious congestion. 

Kern added that the Arizona Department of Transportation’s carbon emissions reduction plans include reducing vehicle miles traveled as a top priority. 

“Sadly, in a post-COVID tyranny era, none of these efforts by Democrats across the country are surprising,” Hoffman said on Wednesday. “It’s precisely why, as a state, we should protect our residents from any effort to track, tax or limit the vehicle miles our citizens travel. It is an inherent and fundamental freedom that Americans enjoy, which is the freedom of mobility.”

Arizonans who drive vehicles fueled by gasoline and diesel already essentially pay a tax on miles traveled via an 18-cent-per-gallon fuel tax. 

And a looming issue related to that is one of Bennett’s concerns. The fuel tax pays for repairs and improvements to the state’s roads and highways, but those funds are dwindling as motor vehicles become more fuel efficient and more electric vehicles hit the roads. 

A tax on vehicle miles traveled is one way to level the playing field and ensure that the new breed of fuel-efficient vehicles, like those using hybrid engines, and fully electric vehicles also pay their fair share to maintain the roadways that they currently travel on tax-free. 

Bennett pointed out that ADOT predicts a $30 billion shortfall in the Highway User Revenue Fund over the next decade, and a vehicle miles traveled tax for electric vehicles is one solution to ensure the drivers of electric vehicles are contributing. 

The resolution’s proponents also failed to mention the freedom of movement of Arizonans who can’t afford a motor vehicle or who cannot drive because of age or disability. The Freedom Caucus has generally espoused a distaste for government funding of public transportation. 

Bennett added that he has concerns that this resolution would also inhibit government entities from monitoring their employees who must drive for their work, to reimburse them for mileage or ensure they’re where they’re supposed to be during work hours. 

And he said that members of the business community had reached out to him with concerns about the resolution, worried that it would preclude them from participating in voluntary emission reduction programs for which they receive incentives through ADOT or the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, as well as concerns that it might stop them from complying with federal emissions statutes. 

An angry Hoffman said that Bennett’s concerns were full of misinformation. 

“This does not inhibit governments from monitoring their own fleet,” he shot back, adding that the resolution allows people to participate in miles-traveled programs if they voluntarily consent to it. 

He did not address what would happen if an employee did not voluntarily consent. 

Hoffman said that the language of the bill was amended at the request of Intel, to ensure that the company could still participate in voluntary carbon offset programs. 

He also acknowledged the tenuous grasp that Republicans have at the Capitol, where they control the legislature by a single seat in each chamber.

“ We need to put this on the ballot and give voters the choice, because we are in an environment where, friends, you may not have control of this legislature much longer,” Hoffman said. “I’m ashamed that right now we are not able to send this to the voters. We are better than this, or at least we should be, as a Republican caucus.”

He said that those blocking the resolution were standing with Democratic President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and their “anti-freedom, anti automobile agenda.” 

Hoffman added that the same bill passed out of the Senate last year with all Republicans in favor of it, and indirectly accused Bennett of flip-flopping. 

“I agree with just about everything that has been said as to why we need to make sure vehicle miles traveled are not used to limit the amount of moving around that we should enjoy freely as Americans and Arizonans,” Bennett said. “However, there are other things that we have to consider.”

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