AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers wanting some help from the government in buying a new car or truck may have to wait.
While the House approved $2 billion more for the “cash for clunkers” program before leaving Washington for a month-long break, the Senate has yet to act and recesses on Friday until after Labor Day.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters Tuesday afternoon there are the votes to pass the additional funds before the Senate leaves town, but did not say when he will bring the measure to the floor for debate and a vote.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Tuesday she was unsure whether she would support the additional funding for the program, which she said has been mismanaged.
“I voted against it in the supplemental for the very reasons we are facing today,” Snowe said. “It had no thorough vetting and analysis and there was not one hearing on this and it was just tucked into the supplemental.”
Snowe said the program was passed as part of the measure funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was very poorly written. She said it needs to have an end date so that the costs can be contained.
“If we don’t, we could be looking at another bill appropriating a billion dollars again in a few months,” she said.
Snowe said she is outraged at the “mismanagement” of the program by the Department of Transportation. She said just four people have been assigned to process all of the claims from across the country.
“I have had dealers in Maine tell my staff they have to come back into the office in the middle of the night to file on the Web site because it keeps crashing,” Snowe said.
But, she said she believes there is an obligation to make sure there are funds to pay for claims “in the pipeline” and not leave dealers “holding the bag” because of the program.
“We are talking about ways to make this work,” Snowe said.
Under the program, vehicle owners may trade in their old models for new cars or trucks that achieve significantly higher gas mileage. The federal subsidies total up to $4,500.
The House passed bill would transfer $2 billion to the program from an economic stimulus account that had been set aside to subsidize renewable energy.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had expressed several concerns about extending the program without any changes, but said Tuesday that she was convinced to support additional funding after DOT statistics were released on the average gas mileage on vehicles purchased under the program.
“The average increase in fuel efficiency under this program has been nearly 10 miles per gallon,” she said. “That is a significant increase. It shows that consumers are taking advantage of this program to trade in their old, inefficient cars and trucks for new, fuel efficient cars and trucks.”
Collins said there is no opportunity to make the program better because the House has recessed for the month. She said there are several changes that would make the legislation better, such as allowing a subsidy to buy a fuel-efficient used car or truck.
“This program in some ways excludes lower income consumers who may only be able to afford a used vehicle,” Collins said. “That’s a change I would like to see.”
Tom Brown, executive director of the Maine Auto Dealers Association, said dealers across the state have reported a significant increase in sales during July. He said while he has no statistics, he believes it was the federal subsidy that triggered the sales that had been well below average.
“We hope the Senate extends the program,” he said. “This has created some business and has also created some income to state and local governments from registration and taxes and in all it has been a boost to the economy.”
Snowe said the DOT had informed her that as of Tuesday $4.2 million in applications for the subsidies had been filed by Maine dealers.
Brown said the program does create more paperwork for dealers than they would normally complete for a sale. In addition to the documents that must be filed with federal officials for the subsidy, the vehicles that are traded in must be junked instead sold on the used car market.
Both of Maine’s representatives supported the additional funding last Friday.