Let’s say I live in the sunny state of California, and I just bought a Nissan Leaf electric car. The car’s $32,000 bottom line would have taken a big bite, but I got a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $5,000 state cash payout. At $20,000, the Leaf is affordable, and the 3 cents a mile operating costs are good news, too.

But wait, now they want to start hitting me with new taxes? The gas jockeys say it’s not fair that they pay a premium of 18.4 cents per gallon to maintain our nation’s roads, while I pay nothing at all. That’s harsh — and here I am a crusader for clean air.

There, in a microcosm, is the debate over whether we need to reform the gas tax as the automobile electrifies. One way to do this is with a whole new system that’s agnostic to what kind of car you drive. It’s called pay-per-mile, and it would be based on how far you drove, not on what you drove to get there.

There's an issue of fairness here. Conservatives are already hollering that electric vehicles are “welfare wagons” because of the subsidies they get. John Voelcker, senior editor at High Gear Media, explains it this way: “My basic take is that I’m sympathetic to the desire of EV owners not to be taxed, but right now, there’s no mechanism by which EVs are contributing to highway funds. And because people aren’t driving as much, we face a phenomenal shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.”

Voelcker’s research shows that U.S. gasoline use peaked in 2006, when we used 374 million gallons every day. High gas prices are also cutting into driving, and thus reducing gasoline tax payouts that pay for road repairs. That 18.4 cents (24.4 cents for diesel) is, of course, phenomenally low compared to the very high taxes Europeans pay — as much as half of the $8 they might pay per gallon. Our gas tax burden isn’t that much of a burden.

The Obama administration is toying with the idea of a pay-per-mile system, which wouldn’t be as hard to implement as it sounds. How would the government know how far you drove? The Congressional Budget Office says that electronic equipment, possibly GPS-based but not necessarily, would record how many miles you drove, then add up a bill that you’d pay, perhaps at your electric vehicle charging station.

This is not, repeat not, going to be popular with EV enthusiasts. Electric cars are expensive, so buying one requires consumers to make a leap of faith. People worry about battery life, range, charger availability and a number of other intangibles. It’s delicate right now, and throwing in a previously unknown tax could upset the balance.

Another way of looking at it: First the government gives me a tax break to buy the electric vehicle, then taxes me for driving it? That’s not a terribly logical argument, but there you are. The auto companies don’t like the idea of EV taxes, and they make the case in a similar way. Shad Balch of General Motors (which makes the Chevrolet Volt) opined: “There will be a time and place when electric vehicles should pay their fair share for road maintenance and those associated costs. But we’re not there yet. Right now, we need to create a market that incentivizes people to buy these cars.”

Paul Scott, vice president of Plug In America (and a Nissan Leaf salesman) says, "We at Plug In America think it's inappropriate to tax EVs at this early stage of development." Oil companies, he says, have been getting "huge tax breaks" for decades. Scott did add that he favors some kind of "weight/mile" tax down the road, after electric vehicles proliferate.

And people who worry about the long arm of Big Brother won’t be happy, either. As Mark G., a poster on The Car Connection, put it, “Besides the possible privacy issues, it would require an entirely new infrastructure and cost a fortune to put in place. It would end up being technology based, which means that is will be easy to manipulate or cheat. Plus, it will no doubt open up plenty of loopholes for the rich/savvy to avoid being taxed. I can only guess that they will use this as a scary alternative to justify raising the gas taxes.”

By the way, the gas tax is only about 35 percent of subsidies to the U.S. road and highway system. The rest is vehicle taxes (20 percent), tolls (less than 5 percent), general fund appropriations (15 percent), borrowing (10 percent), property taxes (5 percent) and miscellaneous taxes and fees (10 percent). 

It’s not just the federal government, either. States can and will tax electric vehicles, too, and they’ll find creative ways to do it. A Washington state bill would apply a $100 surcharge for EVs during the licensing process, and it’s already passed the state Senate and is awaiting action in the state House. Oregon is also considering something similar. (Pardon me, but aren’t these two states that really like electric cars?)

In the end, EVs will end up paying some kind of taxes, and they’ll continue to get tax breaks, too. Writing at CBS’ BNET, Matt DeBord guesses that most electric vehicle buyers could easily pay Washington state’s $100 fee, or other such levies applied as part of taking delivery of the car. “The cost could be rolled into a car’s purchase price, and it would become basically invisible,” he said.

That’s true, but a one-time fee is one thing and an ongoing pay-as-you-drive tax is something else again. With that, you’re going to get a big argument — nearly as big a one as you’d get if you proposed raising that long-static 18.4 cents a gallon road tax. If you haven’t heard, new taxes are off the American agenda.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Road taxes: Gas cars pay them, why not electric vehicles?
The issue is contentious because gasoline taxes generate $45 billion annually to pay for highway repairs.