At least a dozen Colorado legislators and an untold number of state employees have personally benefitted from buying an electric vehicle the past few years, not only in the associated savings in fuel costs but also in the hundreds — sometimes thousands — of additional dollars they’ve claimed in taxpayer-funded mileage reimbursements.
While Colorado remains at the forefront of transportation electrification — one of Gov. Jared Polis’s very first executive orders was to establish the goal of having nearly 1 million EVs on the state’s road by 2030 — it sits with every other state in the country in reimbursing employees for the use of their personal vehicles.
Should legislators who drive EVs receive full mileage compensation?
Regardless of whether legislators drive a gas-guzzling truck or lithium-ion battery-powered EV, not a single state in the nation has considered modifying the mileage reimbursement formula to reflect the difference between the two types of vehicles, according to the Council of State Governments, despite the disparity in their actual costs.
In Colorado, a number of legislators say it hadn’t even occurred to them to consider a different reimbursement rate until a reporter asked about it. Predictably, some supported the notion; others didn’t.
“It just seems inherently unfair that I am commuting 48 miles in my 2017 Nissan Maxima per day and being paid the same rate as someone with a Tesla whose mileage expenses are far less than mine and who’s making money on the back of the taxpayer,” said Sen. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch. “It’s wrong and we should look at making that adjustment.”
For Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder, the driver of a gas-powered vehicle, it’s not so simple.
“We’re still in the mode of encouraging EVs," she said. "I don’t think we want to discourage them to say you won’t get the reimbursement. Perhaps we change down the road, when there are more EVs on the road and we collectively decide we are polluting less.”
Colorado pays legislators and any other state employees 56 cents per mile for using their personal vehicle on state business, or 90% of the federal mileage reimbursement rate established by the Internal Revenue Service. Some states, such as Illinois, reimburse their employees at the full IRS rate.
Unlike state employees, legislators are reimbursed for their commute to the Capitol each legislative session or for meetings of year-round committees. The distance from their home is calculated by state officials.
The IRS rate has been 62.5 cents per mile since July 1, a four-cent-per-mile increase that occurred as a result of explosive gasoline prices topping $5 per gallon. Previous to the increase, the Colorado reimbursement rate was at 53 cents per mile.
So, whether it’s Senate President Steve Fenberg’s 56-mile roundtrip to the state Capitol in his EV from Boulder, or the same 56-mile distance Rep. Rod Bockenfeld drives from his home in Watkins — sometimes in a pickup truck and sometimes an EV — their reimbursement amount is the same: $29.68 per trip.
For each, that would have totaled nearly $2,200 in reimbursed mileage expenses during the legislative session that ran from January through April, according to travel expense records the two filed with their respective chamber of the General Assembly.
Fenberg said he shares his EV about half the time with his wife and drives the family’s gasoline vehicle the other times. Bockenfeld said he frequently varied what he drove depending on the weather. Their reimbursement submissions don't reflect whether it was the EV or the gas car that was driven.
The Denver Gazette was able to identify about a dozen legislators who drive EVs to the Capitol — some said in interviews it wasn’t regularly as they shared the vehicle with a spouse or partner — but a completely accurate list is not easily available. The Gazette requested but was denied access to a document that each legislator files with the clerks of the two chambers of the General Assembly when they begin service. That document contains home addresses, cell phone numbers, email addresses and the general make and model of the vehicle they drive, but not their license plate number.
The clerks said the information was considered a personnel record that was not publicly disclosable under the Colorado Open Records Act.
At the bottom of the expense record that each legislator signs, it clearly notes they were on state business and that, “I actually incurred or paid the operating expenses of the motor vehicle for which reimbursement is claimed on a mileage basis.”
“The biggest problem with the EVs is they’re highly subsidized,” Bockenfeld said. “I think there are different trade-offs on costs, some are up front and some on the backside. I generally vote against any subsidies on EVs because they get so much already. It breaks my heart to drive it; basically it was given to me free by the government.”
For Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who has been an EV owner since 2019, it’s unclear whether any change to the reimbursement amount would tally up to actual savings.
“It’s not just a petroleum reimbursement but includes insurance, wear and tear, depreciation and the cost of fuel,” he said. “It depends on where you’d charge the vehicle. At the end of the day, there are benefits to society when more people are driving EVs and it becomes more of the norm and more than just simply the cost of gas and maintenance.”
That day is fast approaching: There are more than 61,000 EVs on Colorado roads today, according to Atlas Public Policy, and legislators yearly push forth new legislation that looks to the eventuality that Polis’ 1 million EV goal will be reached.
The legislature has dropped lockstep behind the governor, proposing 17 bills over the last four years that in some manner touched on electric vehicles. Thirteen of them have passed.
Some, such as Rep. Andres Pico, R-Colorado Springs, say EVs are fine, as long as owners pay their fair share. Pico sponsored House Bill 21-1205 that attempted to close the gap between the lesser amount EV owners paid on registering their vehicles than those who owned gas-powered ones. It failed.
“It’s intriguing. I’ve not really thought of it,” Pico said of the mileage reimbursement disparity. “Frankly, we’re subsidizing the purchase of EVs to a tremendous degree. We, the taxpayers, are giving a credit to buy the car and it’s cheaper to operate. Then also they’re not paying as much per mile.”
Qualified EV buyers can land a $7,500 federal rebate and a $2,500 state rebate. There are also rebates offered for the in-home installation of specialized charging units.
The average cost of gasoline can fluctuate wildly, but less so for electricity. The average price of a gallon of mid-grade gasoline in Colorado on Aug.22 was $4.25, according to AAA. A month earlier it was $5.05.
Electricity on average is about 13.82 cents per kilowatthour (kWh) in Colorado this year, according to ChooseEnergy.com, among the most expensive in the country.
If an EV travels 100 miles on 24 kWh, as the 2020 Tesla Model 3 does, it costs 0.24 kWh per mile, or 3.32 cents per mile to operate.
According to PlugInAmerica.org, the cost of electricity would have to hit about 31 cents per kWh for it to equal what it costs to fuel a car.
Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, was more matter of fact: “Reimbursement does not mean profiting.”
EV owners such as Rep. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, say it’s not that at all. It’s merely the state’s process to reimburse based on the IRS rate.
“First of all, the pay we get as legislators is not why any of us do this, including the reimbursement rate,” he said.
Records show Bridges has collected $878 in mileage reimbursements over the last legislative session for the 22.4-mile roundtrip from his home.
“Nationally the percentage of EV ownership is pretty low and I’m not sure how it would be calculated,” he said. “If we set our own reimbursement rate, we’d have to take into account the cost to do the study … and what’s the cost compared to the savings?”
Although no state has bothered to attempt the analysis, nor the IRS, at least one government has: the United Kingdom.
Its rate for electric vehicles is set at about 22.7 cents per mile for the first 10,000 miles driven in a year, according to HM Revenues & Customs. After that it drops to about 12.6 cents per mile.
At the UK rate, Bridges would have collected about $5.08 per trip during the last legislative session, or $376, a 60% savings to taxpayers. For Sen. Kevin Priola, D-Henderson (he recently switched from Republican to Democrat), the $1,714 he collected in mileage reimbursements last legislative session for driving his EV would have dropped to $734.
"My understanding is it's tied to the federal reimbursement and maybe in the future there's a tweak," Priola said, noting the switch to EVs "is by necessity since our air quality is so horrible."
He added: "The brown cloud used to be just Denver but over the past 20 years it's just a constant haze."
In California, the PEV Resource Center determined that charging an EV during off-peak hours can have a significant reduction in cost, putting it at the equivalent of gassing a car up at less than $1 per gallon.
“Joe six-pack can’t afford the $60,000 to buy an EV,” notes Sen. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs. “I think this should certainly be looked at, quite candidly. I’d never considered it, but it’s a valid point.”
Pico points out that new gasoline stations have not been government subsidized, but EV charging stations have been, with the use of special funds to outfit a contiguous line of about 350 chargers across the state, according to the Colorado Energy Office (CEO) and its Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan 2020.
Nationally, the plan is to spend more than $5 billion over the next five years to deploy chargers nationwide under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program, with Colorado getting about $57 million of that.
Currently there are more than 4,000 gasoline stations across Colorado. There are about 4,200 electric charging ports, according to CEO.
EV proponents say the costs of reimbursement are tied to more than just the actual fuel expense. But many of the other costs associated with owning a gasoline-powered vehicle don’t exist on an EV. In fact, about the only EV expense is (eventually) a new battery, tires and liquids such as window washer fluid. There is some other maintenance, but not as compared to what's required to maintain a gasoline-powered vehicle and its moving parts.
Still, much of what it costs to own an EV remains in flux, mostly because it is such a new industry. The expense of replacing an EV’s battery, believed to last several years with some warrantied for 100,000 miles, is currently about $10,000. But that's long before any have actually worn out and ahead of any market supply that could drive prices downward.
Auto insurance industry experts say there’s too little data to know what the costs will be, so, like anything new, risks are higher until more information gathering over several years gives a better look.
But while AAA estimates full-coverage insurance on an average EV runs about $1,227 per year, and a small gasoline-powered SUV is about $1,087 per year, those numbers are likely to change dramatically over time.
“EVs are no less safe or reliable than gas cars,” according to Drive Electric Colorado, an advocacy group that strives to bust many of the myths behind EVs. “EV insurance increases slightly due to the developing technology.”
The choice to drive an EV is not at all difficult to justify, according to Rep. Tracey Bernett, D-Boulder.
“I fuel up at home at night and don’t have to look at gas prices,” she said. “I figured out the charge in the off-peak hours, and I drove about 10,000 miles, and my fuel cost was about $100 for the entire year.”
She collected $2,755 in mileage reimbursements last legislative session, records show, for the 68-mile roundtrip commute.
While Bernett agrees separate reimbursement amounts might warrant consideration, it’s critical to get more people on board with electrified transportation.
“I’m more about making sure people, no matter their income, can have access to these things,” she said.