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It took this politician 5 minutes to cheat the pay-per-mile tax

Washington State Representative Mark Harmsworth. (Matt Pitman)

When State Representative Mark Harmsworth volunteered to take part in Washington’s pay-per-mile tax pilot program, he was told to be mischievous — in a way.

“One of the things that (Washington Transportation Commission) told us to do …. They said to us ‘Find holes in the system; find bugs in the system; be a scofflaw; tell us what’s wrong with this.’ I took that to heart,” Harmsworth told KTTH Radio’s Todd Herman. “Within five minutes I found a huge hole in the mileage app – it was that simple.”

RELATED: A mole inside Washington’s new tax pilot program

Washington transportation officials are experimenting with a pay-per-mile tax to replace the state’s current gas tax. As electric cars come online and vehicles become more fuel efficient, the gas tax has taken a hit. The state expects a 45 percent drop in gas tax revenue by 2035.

The state’s response is a pay-per-mile tax. It is currently experimenting with one now and has a few different reporting options. There are GPS trackers to record miles traveled. Drivers can also report miles traveled quarterly. Harmsworth uses an app on his smartphone that takes a photo of his dashboard information. He is randomly prompted to provide a photo.

First, Harmsworth tried taking a photo of the dashboard of his daughter’s car — a similar model. But he was found out pretty quick. His next cheat, however, continues to work.

The cheat: Harmsworth took photos of his dashboard showing lower miles. He then printed color pictures of those photos using a “cheap” home printer. When his app prompts him to provide a photo of his dashboard, he simply takes a photo of the lower-mileage printout.

“Now I can set the mileage to whatever I like,” he said. “I can set erroneous mileage reports to the application. And it was accepted. I didn’t say anything.”

He didn’t say anything to pilot program managers when he first submitted the photo of a photo. And he didn’t say anything again a month later when he submitted a second photo of a photo. He drove 15,000 miles, yet only reported about 200.

“Technically, I can submit it again,” Harmsworth said. “Ironically, after all of this I was just asked again – a little ahead of time I believe – for my third odometer reading because they are trying to figure out what I’m doing.”

“Now, of course, I hope they can correct this issue in their system because they need to do that. But it just shows you how flawed and how easy it would be to scam these types of systems,” he said. “That’s not what our state needs. We need a real transportation system, not something that can be easily scammed by scofflaws.”

Harmsworth has called officials with the pilot program and encouraged them to look at his account, hinting that they should pay extra attention. He’s waiting to see if the figure it out.

Pay-per-mile tax: The bigger picture

Harmsworth believes that that the pay-per-mile tax program is about more than replacing the dwindling gas tax. He alleges that it is a method to take in more tax dollars from residents and get around tax regulations.

“For those who aren’t aware, the road usage charge is a pay-per-mile scheme that DOT has come up with to extract more tax dollars out of us for our transportation system,” Harmsworth said. “…. We have plenty of money. This really is a way of circumventing the 18th Amendment, which applies to our gas tax. For those who don’t know, the 18th Amendment says that any taxes collected on cars through the gas tax have to be spent on roads.”

But taxes collected via other means may not be subject to the amendment. For example, Harmsworth points to the express toll lanes on I-405, or the tolls being placed on the US-2 trestle bridge. That money can be collected and spent on anything the government likes, he says.

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