California drivers who buy new Hummers, Ford Expeditions and other big vehicles that emit high levels of greenhouse gases would pay a fee of up to $2,500.
And drivers who buy more fuel-efficient cars like the Toyota Prius or Ford Focus would receive rebates of up to $2,500, straight from the gas-guzzlers' pockets.
That's the provocative proposal from a Silicon Valley legislator whose "Clean Car Discount" bill is gaining momentum, sending car dealers into a tizzy and sparking passions among motorists.
Why? It's the first time California has considered penalizing consumers to limit global warming, rather than just providing incentives such as solar power rebates or special access to the carpool lane for hybrid vehicles.
"If we are going to effectively fight global warming, we are going to have to find a way to get the cleaner cars on the road and the dirtier cars off the road," said Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Los Altos. "We need to have both carrots and sticks."
Ruskin's bill, AB 493, won approval of the Assembly Transportation Committee two weeks ago.
The bill has the backing of most major statewide environmental groups, who see it as one of their top priorities in 2007. And the measure received a substantial boost Friday when it was endorsed by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business organization that includes the major tech companies in Silicon Valley, including IBM, Google, Apple and Cisco.
"Forty percent of California's greenhouse gases are from transportation," said Carl Guardino, the group's CEO. "This is a market-driven approach to drive the production and purchase of cleaner cars."
The bill would apply to new cars, pickups, minivans and sport-utility vehicles, starting with 2011 models. Under the proposed rules, the state Air Resources Board each year would rank new car models by the pounds of carbon dioxide and other gases they emit that trap heat in the atmosphere.
Roughly 25 percent of the vehicles in the middle would have no fee or rebate. But buyers of high-emission vehicles would pay a surcharge of $100 to $2,500, depending on the amount of emissions. People buying vehicles that emit few greenhouse gases would be handed rebates of $100 to $2,500.
Generally, cars that burn more gasoline emit more greenhouse gases.
The amount of the fees and rebates would be posted on the car's sales sticker. Auto dealers would collect the money from buyers of gas-guzzlers and send it to the state Board of Equalization. Buyers of gas-sippers would be given a certificate from the dealer to mail to the state to receive their checks.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has yet to take a position on the bill. Since being elected, he has opposed raising taxes, but also has signed a number of first-in-the-nation laws to combat global warming and encourage renewable energy.
Car dealers have taken a position. They're on a collision course with the bill.
They contend that the legislation unfairly targets large families, farmers and ranchers. And because some of the fees will be kept by the state to run the program, the measure is a tax on large vehicles, they argue.
"It's one thing to incentivize; it's another to put a scarlet letter on a vehicle. Carrots are better than sticks," said Brian Maas, a spokesman for the California Motor Car Dealers Association.
But environmental groups counter that the biggest vehicles should have a scarlet letter because they create more smog, increase global warming and deepen America's reliance on Middle East oil.
"Those vehicles that are polluting the most are harming society more than other vehicles," said Dan Kalb, state policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"Consumer choice is preserved," Kalb said. 'But if somebody wants to buy a vehicle that pollutes a lot, they are going to have to compensate for the harm that is causing society."
Maas said last week's Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide can be regulated under the Clean Air Act means that the auto industry will probably have to comply with California's strict new rules requiring reductions in greenhouse emissions from vehicles starting in 2009.
'We already felt like we gave at the office," he said. "Why should Californians be paying a disproportionate price when our neighbors in Nevada or Washington or other states aren't?"
The Union of Concerned Scientists says that while smaller cars like the Volkswagen Jetta (+$1,282) and Ford Mustang (+$225) would receive rebates and low-mileage vehicles like the GMC Yukon SUV (-$2,188) or Dodge Viper (-$2,500) would incur fees plenty of mid-size and small SUVs and minivans would not. For example, buying a new gasoline-powered Ford Escape or Chrysler Voyager would generate no fee or rebate, and buying a Toyota RAV4 (+$993) or Honda CR-V (+$751) would put money back in the motorists' pocket.
Ruskin included exemptions in the bill for emergency vehicles, transit vehicles for disabled people, vehicles purchased by businesses with fewer than 25 employees and vehicles purchased by very low-income people.
To dissuade California motorists from leaving the state to buy cars, the bill specifies that such purchases are liable for California fees but not rebates.
Although little-known, there already is a federal "gas guzzler tax." Passed in 1978 by Congress, it requires the buyer of any new passenger car but not trucks to pay $1,000 if the vehicle's mileage is lower than 21.5 mpg, increasing to $7,700 for vehicles that get less than 12.5 mpg. The tax ensnares mostly exotic sports cars, such as Ferraris.
Drivers interviewed over the weekend had a range of views on the proposal.
"I agree with it," said Eric Cross, of Carmel, a U.S. Marine who visited Stevens Creek auto dealers with his wife, Renee, and children looking for a new Toyota RAV4 or Honda CRV. "The folks who would pay the higher prices are already paying higher prices for these big vehicles. If the governor signs it, I would think other states will do it too."
But other drivers fumed.
"I'm all for preventing global warming, but I'm so tired of taxes," said Henry Medellin, a San Francisco financial counselor who was waiting at a car wash Saturday near Valley Fair mall for his VW Jetta. "It's just ridiculous. I don't know what the solution is. But this seems like another tax."
Others perhaps foreshadowing talk radio debates - predict the bill will send emotions into high gear in car-crazy California.
"Some people buy Hummers to drive to the grocery store and then complain about gas prices," said Sanjay Ved, a Santa Clara software engineer. "But other people need big vehicles. It's tough to say."
Reach Paul Rogers at email@example.com or (408) 920-5045.