Editorial on the referendum – on car taxes, the canton is well reeled in this time around

Editorial on the vote – The canton is well on track this time with car taxes

The motor vehicle tax in the canton of Berne is to be made more ecological – in return, the other taxes would fall. This is a fair deal that deserves a yes vote.

Simon Thonen

Motor vehicle taxes are set to rise the most for them: sports cars and SUVs with high CO₂ emissions. Here in downtown Bern

The car market is changing rapidly – for better or worse for the environment. So there are now efficient vehicles or those with electric drives in all categories, while at the same time the proportion of heavy, heavily motorized vehicles is growing. It is obvious to consider the environmental impact of the different car types in the cantonal motor vehicle tax. This is precisely the purpose of the bill that will be put to the vote of the Bernese people on 13. February vote.

So far, the ecological design of car taxes in the canton of Bern has been a political pincer and miscarriage. A first vote in 2011 had to be repeated because the recount of the extremely close result ordered by the court failed – several municipalities had disposed of the ballots too early in contravention of the regulations. In 2012, the people then voted for a tax cut on cars instead of eco-reform. Now the cantonal government and parliament have made a new attempt.

For the SVP, which has filed a referendum, this is a squeeze. Almost all other parties support the reform. It is not only the Free Democrats who clearly support the proposal of their government councilor Philippe Muller. Even the small conservative-religious EDU, otherwise a loyal ally of the SVP, recommends a yes vote. The broad support, which extends far into the conservative camp, is also due to the fact that the proposal – and this is new – is directly linked to a reduction in general taxes.

It would be inconsistent if the people of Bern, after their clear yes to the climate article in the constitution, were to reject such a small step toward implementing the climate goal.

The bill stipulates that the canton will pay back the additional 40 million francs it collects with the higher motor vehicle taxes to the population – by lowering income and property taxes by the same amount. This combination should make the canton of Berne more attractive. "No one is moving away because of car taxes, but maybe because of high income taxes," argues Green Liberal president Casimir von Arx.

Sensible, but small steps

However: The 40 million francs, which are shifted here, are modest in view of a cantonal national budget of 12 billion francs. Miracles are not to be expected. But the motorists do not have to fear this proposal. For many, the bottom line will not change financially, for others only a little – plus or minus. Who earns average and drives a middle class car (or as a couple two), according to the calculations of the canton will pay per year about 50 to 100 francs more car tax and to the same extent less income tax.

But this also raises the question of the sense of the matter. The changes between the vehicle categories are relevant for the environment. For the first time ever, the CO₂ emissions of cars are taken into account in addition to weight – as incredible as that may sound in times of climate debate. Therefore, it will be most expensive for light vehicles with powerful engines and high CO₂ emissions: sports cars. Not unreasonably, supporters refer to it as a Porsche bill.

Country is not discriminated against

After sports cars, the surcharges for heavy off-road vehicles and SUVs are the highest. This is because of the new CO₂ emissions factor, but also because one of the most annoying benefits in the current system is being abolished: Of all things, the heaviest cars will receive a discount on the weight factor. The rebate will be eliminated, but weight will rightly remain a factor in calculating the tax going forward.

The new system sets the right incentives for the environment. The question remains open whether they will influence car purchases in an ecological sense. For the motor vehicle tax will continue to be only a small part of the cost of the car. Certainly the right thing to do is to stop putting tax penalties on the purchase of more environmentally friendly vehicles, unlike today’s situation.

The SVP, however, sees the bill as discriminating against rural residents, who often rely on heavily motorized four-wheel-drive vehicles – an argument that fits very well with its campaign against cities. But this is not statistically substantiated: In most rural administrative districts, the weight as well as the CO₂ emissions of cars are on average only slightly higher than those of urban districts. Even in the urban lowlands, many apparently afford an SUV.

First decision after climate article

This is not to deny that in mountainous areas four-wheel drive vehicles have a greater justification. The new tax model provides for exemptions for agricultural motor vehicles, lower tax rates for delivery vehicles and – as a new feature – even a tax exemption for snow groomers.

Overall, it’s a compromise bill that at least gets the incentives right for greener cars. And: As the first cantonal vote after the clear yes of the Bernese people to a climate article in the constitution, the ballot has political weight. It would be inconsistent if the same people would now reject such a small step towards the implementation of the climate target.

Simon Thonen writes about traffic, energy and climate policy in the city and canton of Bern. Before returning to Bern he was EU correspondent in Brussels. With the Jura question, he discovered a Helvetic variant of the Belgian language dispute here.

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