Editorial | Could the time be right for a trailer tax?

05/30/2013 6:24 PM

05/30/2013 6:25 PM

For years, readers of this newspaper have complained about unlicensed, unregistered utility trailers using the public roads without paying their fair share. Recent talk about the need for more money to maintain the state's roads and bridges has renewed the complaints. The reasoning goes, why raise gas taxes or any other fees unless you have first taxed the trailers. Citizens see this as a glaring omission in state law and a patent unfairness in taxation, and those perceptions are warranted.

State law exempts privately owned trailers weighing under 2,500 pounds from registration unless they are being rented. That means trailers such as U-Hauls must be licensed even if they weigh under 2,500 pounds.

Attempts to change the law have failed repeatedly, and not since 2006 has it been tried again.

Opposition comes from several fronts, according to legislators who have tried to change the law. First are those who insist that farm trailers should not be registered or taxed. Some bills specifically exempted farm trailers but they still failed.

The most prevalent objection is from those who have pledged never to raise taxes or impose new ones. Many who have taken that pledge are suspicious of government and don't want any new rules.

Another objection is that registering trailers would raise so little money it is not worth the bother. Of course, no one knows for sure how many are in use because they are not registered. The one estimate we have to go on is from a legislative study in 2005 that projected income of $4 million from trailers, compared with $594.3 million collected from all vehicle fees.

Currently, trailers under 2,500 pounds that must be registered pay $10. Those over 2,500 pounds pay $20, so there isn't a lot of money involved.

Aside from the revenue-to-effort ratio, some state officials said there is no uniform way to tax or register the trailers because there are so many types and sizes.

Even so, that year, state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach, filed a bill calling for the registration of utility trailers. It died in committee. In 2006, former Rep. Vida Miller, D-Pawleys Island, and Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach, co-sponsored a trailer registration bill. It died in committee. Three other House members filed a similar bill, which also died in committee.

Most other states have resolved these difficulties and found a way to register, if not tax, utility trailers. Missouri, for example, requires titles, registration and taxes of the trailers, and it exempts “cotton and hay trailers.'' Registration is $7.50 for one year. Not much money involved here, either: The state collected $356,596 in trailer registration fees last year.

According to the website dangeroustrailers.org, South Carolina is one of 11 states that does not require registration of utility trailers. The website, run by Virginia resident Ron Melancon, advocates for trailer safety.

Melancon points out that unregistered trailers have caused traffic accidents leading to deaths, and that they should be required to have lights, brake lights and turn signals. South Carolina requires only that such trailers have two reflectors in the rear.

The Anderson (S.C.) Independent reported that in 2010, a couple was killed when a detached utility trailer rolled into their car on Interstate 85. The reponsible party was never found.

Add to safety issues the problem of theft of trailers with motorcycles on them, and it is enough to make Hardwick vow to file a trailer bill again.

He told The Sun News this week that there are varied benefits to requiring trailer registration and he intends to work on a new bill over the summer and file it for consideration next year.

Readers who care about this issue can do their part by expressing support for Hardwick's effort, urging their House and Senate members to support the bill, and sharing their opinion with other legislators when the measure comes up for votes.

The revenue may be a tiny piece of the state budget, but the principle and the safety issues are compelling reasons to put this back in play.

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