13 Feb 2003 Sierra Club Calls on IRS to Audit SUV Owners
BACKGROUND: The Sierra Club on February 11 issued a press release beginning: “The Sierra Club today urged the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to aggressively audit the returns of taxpayers who take advantage of a tax loophole subsidizing their purchases of gas-guzzling SUVs. In a letter to the IRS, the group stressed the need for the IRS to ensure that these vehicles are in fact being used for business purposes at least 50% of the time, as the tax code requires. Already, many individuals have taken advantage of the loophole to drive off the lot with a luxury SUV, often for personal use, assured that they will be able to pass on to taxpayers up to $25,000 of the cost of the vehicle.”
The release continues, in part: “A long-standing provision of the tax code lets small business owners write off a portion of certain business expenses. Vehicles weighing over 6000 pounds are eligible, so that small business owners who need work trucks and delivery vans can take advantage of the provision. But many S.U.V.s weigh over 6000 pounds, and since that loophole — which [the Sierra Club’s Daniel] Becker described as ‘a loophole big enough to drive a Hummer through’ — came to light last year, a growing number of individuals are using it to buy S.U.V.s for what may be personal — not business — use. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the SUV tax loophole costs the federal government $1 billion for every 100,000 vehicles that exploit the deduction.”1
TEN SECOND RESPONSE: The demonization of SUV owners continues with the allegation that SUV owners are likely to cheat on their taxes.
THIRTY SECOND RESPONSE: Businesses with 100 employees or less already spend $2,500 per employee complying with federal regulations.2 Auditing them because they take business deductions for the purchase of delivery vans and similar vehicles would simply add to these already staggering costs. All businesses and individuals should comply with tax laws, but no group should be singled out for costly tax audits simply because it uses vehicles that are not politically correct.
DISCUSSION: Environmental organizations convinced the government in 1975 to place mileage limits on vehicles, with higher limits for vehicles built on truck beds. It was entirely predictable that the result of such a rule would be the use of truck beds for larger passenger vehicles — hence, the invention of the SUV. Now that SUVs exist, the purchase price of a small percentage of them (those over 6,000 pounds) qualifies for tax deductions IF the SUV is used for business use at least 50 percent of the time.
Readers of the Sierra Club’s press release and its website could be forgiven for supposing that this long-standing tax deduction is leading to a deluge of tax cheating and SUV purchasing. In fact, only the very largest SUVs weigh over 6,000 pounds, most SUV owners don’t claim to use them primarily for business and the Sierra Club presents no evidence of widespread tax cheating relating to SUVs.
Ironically, as this tax deduction is rather obscure, the Sierra Club’s publicity campaign may cause more people to take advantage of it.
A careful reading of the Sierra Club’s press release and website on SUVs reveals a generous use of over-the-top prose.
For instance, the first paragraph of its web page entitled “Driving Up the Heat: SUVs and Global Warming” begins: “When it comes to wasting energy, SUVs are unrivaled. Built with outdated, gas-guzzling technology, many SUVs get just 13 miles per gallon.”3
Of course, the energy use of SUVs can’t possibly be “unrivaled” (the Sierra Club’s word, “waste,” is impossible to quantify) and the phrase “many SUVs” is essentially meaningless.
To be precise, of 269 year-2003 SUV models examined by the EPA, only 34 (12.6%) get 13 mpg or less in city driving and only 10 (3.7%) get 13 mpg or less on highways.
Of the 34, more than half, 19, were versions of the Chevrolet Suburban or Tahoe or the GMC Yukon. All 10 of the SUVs rated by the EPA as receiving 13 mpg or less during highway driving were Suburbans, Tahoes or Yukons.4
The Sierra Club webpage goes on to tell one side of the SUV safety debate — the cons only.
Another Sierra Club webpage, “Driving Up the Heat: SUVs and Global Warming: Worsening the Threat of Global Warming,”5 makes one inflated claim after another. Readers are led to believe that SUVs are significantly responsible for sea level rises (ongoing for approximately 14,985 years before the first SUV was invented), the melting of ice sheets formed during the last ice age and melting ever since (expected to continue for another 6,000 years, SUVs or not) and even for “infectious-disease outbreaks linked to global warming [that] shut down Disney World.”
In fact, according to testimony by one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Dr. S. Fred Singer, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in 2000, satellite data show no appreciable warming of the global atmosphere since 1979. Data from balloons released regularly around the world confirm the satellite data. Reliable thermometer records of surface temperatures for the continental United States show no appreciable warming since about 1940. Tree-ring records for Siberia and Alaska and published ice-core records show no warming since 1940.6
If the planet were to experience global warming, the naturally-occuring sea level rise might slow, due to increased snow accumulation at the poles.
For reasons likely related to its own biases, the Sierra Club seems to place more credibility in relatively crude computer models predicting future global warming than in actual temperature measurements. It is free to do so. This does not mean, however, that SUV owners are more likely than other taxpayers to cheat on their taxes.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Testimony on climate change by Professor S. Fred Singer, President, Science and Environmental Policy Project, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation at http://www.nationalcenter.org/KyotoSingerTestimony2000.html
National Policy Analysis #393: “Fuel Efficiency Standards: What to Do Next?,” by Gretchen Randall, National Center for Public Policy Research, available at http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA393.html
“Compliance Costs of Federal Workplace Regulations: Survey Results for U.S. Manufacturers (Executive Summary),” by W. Mark Crain and Joseph Johnson, Mercatus Center at George Mason University, at http://www.mercatus.org/article.php/57.html as of 2/12/03
“Eight Reasons Why ‘Global Warming’ Is a Scam,” by Joseph L. Bast, the Heartland Institute, available at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=11548 as of 2/12/03
EPA Fuel Economy Information, including comparison charts of all 2003 vehicles, is online at http://www.fueleconomy.gov/ as of 2/12/03
“Sierra Club to IRS: Audit Gas-Guzzling SUVs,” Sierra Club press release of February 11, 2003, available at http://lists.sierraclub.org/SCRIPTS/WA.EXE?A2=ind0302&L=ce-scnews-releases&D=1&T=0&H=1&O=D&F=&S=&P=765 as of 2/11/03
“Driving Up the Heat: SUVs and Global Warming,” Sierra Club document located at http://www.sierraclub.org/globalwarming/suvreport/#background as of 2/12/03
“Driving Up the Heat: SUVs and Global Warming: Worsening the Threat of Global Warming,” Sierra Club document located at http://www.sierraclub.org/globalwarming/suvreport/suvthreat.asp as of 2/12/03