Friday, December 28, 2007

How to Look Concerned Without Really Doing Anything Dept.

Today I found out about a new program created in the 2007 Texas legislature that I'd entirely missed in the news coverage, or lack thereof.

I introduce to you: the Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance, Retrofit, and Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program.

Sounds good, right? Well, um, no.

First, you can't make more than twice the poverty line in your household.

Second, your car has to pass everything except emissions checks. (This, of course, requires that you live in a county that HAS emissions checks, and for at least a year prior to applying. It also requires your car be rolling, and that you have a clean title.)

Third, the director of a state agency- the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality- can put any additional restrictions on the program he or she sees fit.

If you get through these three obstacles, though, what do you get? Between $30 and $600 to bring your car up to code, or between $600 to $1000 to replace the car if it can't be brought up to code.

Furthermore, you can't get the $1000 unless the old car is completely parted out or destroyed outright. You can't sell it as a car or use it as a trade-in at a dealership.

Now, for most causes of emissions failure, $600 is not nearly enough to cover the work needed to bring a car up to snuff. Nor are you going to get a car that passes emissions tests for $1000. In fact, a car that passes inspection isn't likely to be available for less than $3000, and more likely more than $5000.

My personal prediction? This program is going to dole out only a tiny trickle of its billion-dollar budget to the poor. The rest is going to go either to bureaucrats under "administrative costs" or to friends of the current GOP leadership in Texas who can weasel their way through a loophole somewhere.

I personally believe that, if the government is going to concern itself at all with replacing people's old hooptys, it ought to just give folks a new car and be done with it.

Here's how I'd do it: first, set aside a certain amount of dough, say a billion a year, for the program. One million- 0.1% of the total budget- for overhead costs should be sufficient. Give a handful of officials full authority to go out and buy the cars the cheapest way- whether that's direct from the manufacturer or off a car lot. Don't set up any bureaucracy that requires years of applications and review before the cars get delivered; it doesn't stop crooked bureaucrats from giving their buddies a special deal. Instead, investigate the receipts after the fact and make an example of anybody who gets too grabby.

What kind of cars should be bought? No-frills models, certainly- the absolute base standard package. There should be a mix of different vehicle types, but since the program would focus on urban areas the bulk should be small passenger cars. I'd also recommend a mix of hybrids, all-electric, and hydrogen vehicles as they become available; save energy, reduce pollution, and encourage the construction of support infrastructure by the private sector. (Stanley, should we get our hydrogen at Shell, BP or Chevron?)

Given the above, the average price per car should be about $33,000, or a million bucks for thirty cars. If a billion bucks per year is budgeted for the program, that comes up to nearly thirty thousand cars given away per year. Presuming one car per person in Texas (in reality it's more), that's a bit more than 0.1% of all cars in Texas being replaced per year at taxpayer expense. (Which is OK, because most people can afford to upgrade their own rides.)

Anyway, divide up those thirty thousand cars among the urban areas in Texas that require emissions testing, by population. (Living in the sticks as I do, that would make me and about five million Texans ineligible.) People living in those areas can apply for an annual lottery to get the car; pledge your current car as a trade-in, and if your name is pulled, get a new car back. Restrict it to cars ten years or older, but otherwise allow anyone, regardless of income, one chance at a car.

Now let's weight the odds in favor of giving the cars to poor people with polluting, gas-guzzling beaters. Give five extra chances to anyone who shows evidence that the car they're pledging runs, but flunks emissions. Give five extra chances to any household earning less than double the poverty line, and twenty extra chances to any household earning the poverty line or less. Finally, give one extra chance for every two years older than ten the trade-in car is.

Then comes the lottery day, and the winners (plus alternates) are picked. The agency takes delivery of the old car and hands over the new, no taxes, no fees, nothing but a full tank/charge. The old cars can be auctioned off to recover a tiny bit of the cost of the program; the odds are they'll end up as parts, scrap metal, or new offerings in a Mexican car dealership. In any case, they'll be off Texas roads and, more likely than not, off the road altogether.

Is this a legitimate government function? No, not really- at least it's not a core function.

But it's a much better way of actually helping poor people drive cleaner than the abomination the Texas legislature actually came up with.


Tohoscope said...

You got my vote. How soon can you get your campaign running?

Kris Overstreet said...

I ran for the state house, and lost, in 2006, although the car-swap thing wasn't on my platform.

I began thinking about it before the campaign, though, when it came out that the then-new Houston light rail line cost so much per passenger to build and run that it would have been cheaper to buy a Ferrari for every prospective rider.