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U.S.-State Clash Clouds Smog Testing Bill : Environment: Assembly toughens a measure to keep vehicle checks at repair shops. EPA has threatened sanctions if a rival plan for separate inspection centers is not approved.


SACRAMENTO — With hundreds of millions in federal aid at stake, state legislators maneuvered with little apparent success Tuesday to come up with legislation that would reduce pollution from cars and meet strict new federal clean air standards.

In the Assembly, Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) was preparing legislation that would preserve the current Smog Check system of 9,600 service stations that provide smog testing and repairs. The bill could go to the Assembly for a vote today.

Katz said his bill would improve the current system by toughening laws against service stations that give fraudulent smog approvals by requiring annual tests for cars at least 8 years old and by making it illegal to drive cars that are gross polluters.

But for all the enhancements, the Assembly bill still appeared to be in conflict with standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA is calling on the Legislature to prohibit facilities that provide initial smog tests from carrying out repairs, contending that such dual functions tempt station operators to commit fraud.

EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner has threatened to begin imposing sanctions if the Legislature fails to forge acceptable legislation by the session's end on Friday.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown issued a stern warning to the White House on Tuesday to keep federal freeway money flowing and let California maintain its current system.

Declaring that the EPA proposal amounts to an idea from "some nutty bureaucrat" in Washington, the Speaker said the Clinton Administration fails to grasp that Californians will not stand for a system that makes them wait for hours in line to get their cars tested.

"It would be a terrible step backward for the economy of California and a fatal step for Bill Clinton's candidacy in 1996," Brown said.

Later in the day, Gov. Pete Wilson said the Democratic Speaker was giving Clinton very good advice. He said he believes any sanctions would be highly punitive.

In Washington and Sacramento, legislators and Administration officials said that despite such threats, the federal government could not begin withholding highway construction funds for at least another six months.

Browner is supporting a competing state Senate bill that would scrap the current system and create a centralized system of smog testing. Motorists in Southern California and other highly polluted air basins would go to one of perhaps 200 central Smog Check centers statewide, and go elsewhere for repairs.

Katz said his legislation, which had not yet been written into a bill by late Tuesday, would require that the state adopt the EPA-approved system of Smog Check centers if the new steps fail to reduce air pollution sufficiently by June 30, 1995.

In Washington, Clinton Administration officials had grown skeptical that an acceptable compromise would be reached in the next three days. The EPA is "clearly on a different track than Katz seems to be on," one Clinton Administration source said.

If Katz's bill clears the Assembly as expected, the measure would face considerable opposition by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside).

Presley is convinced that the only way to clean California's air and appease the EPA is to scrap the current system of smog testing at corner gas stations.

"I don't see any point in passing something that will just set up a confrontation with the EPA," Presley said, referring to Katz's bill.

Presley chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over all bills that have a fiscal impact, and any legislation affecting smog tests almost certainly would end up in his committee.

Now in his 19th year in the Senate, Presley wrote his first Smog Check bill in 1977. He carried the legislation creating the current system in 1982, and he attempted to improve the system with a measure in 1990.

Katz's bill would land first in the Senate Rules Committee, where Senante President Pro Tem David A. Roberti, the head of the Rules Committee and close ally of Presley's, would take control of its fate.

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