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Senate Blocks Smog Check Bill, Averts Clash With EPA


SACRAMENTO — Averting a confrontation with the Clinton Administration over the future of California's smog check program, the state Senate on Friday set aside legislation meant to preserve the current system, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants the state to scrap.

Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) blocked action on the bill, which had cleared the Assembly, after EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner agreed to delay her threat to penalize the state by denying California its full share of federal highway construction dollars.

The truce in the smog check skirmish came as state lawmakers wound up their 1993 legislative session by acting on scores of measures, including several that were part of a package intended to make the state more hospitable to business.

Among the bills pending as the midnight deadline approached were measures cutting taxes for California manufacturers and multinational companies doing business in the state, and legislation to overhaul the cornerstone of the state's environmental protection laws.

Gov. Pete Wilson, meanwhile, praised lawmakers for making what he termed a "substantial down payment" toward improving California's business climate.

Wilson, speaking to reporters after addressing the California Chamber of Commerce, said he intended to sign a bill on his desk that will move California's presidential primary in 1996 from June to mid-March.

"I think most Californians feel as I do: They're a little tired of being the bank for presidential candidates and not being able to actually become involved in the selection of candidates for either party until, in many cases, it's really irrelevant," Wilson said. "The decision has effectively been made in other state primaries."

Wilson also said he is sympathetic to a bipartisan push to increase the cigarette tax two cents per pack to pay for breast cancer research and detection, but declined to say whether he will sign the bill.

The governor did hint that he might sign a hotly debated measure that would require bicycle riders under age 18 to wear safety helmets.

"I'd like to intrude as little as possible, but I am much more interested in child safety," Wilson said.

On the smog check issue, Wilson said he supported the bill that would preserve California's current program, but said he was willing to negotiate.

"I'm not intransigent," the governor said.

EPA Administrator Browner, in a letter to Roberti, agreed not to undertake sanctions until Nov. 15. She had been threatening to deliver a letter that would start the process if the Legislature failed to pass an EPA-approved bill by the session's end on Friday.

"I am committed to being flexible when it comes to how we achieve the goals, but not whether the standards are met," Browner said in an interview. "There may be more than one way to achieve the standards. We're very, very open."

Given Roberti's commitment to work on a compromise, Browner said she would "withhold the proposal of any sanctions" until mid-November, and delay actual sanctions "for a period of time sufficient for my staff and the legislative leadership" to craft an acceptable bill.

"She's evincing movement," Roberti said, adding that he will push for a deal during the fall recess and have legislation prepared by January, when lawmakers return. "When you are part of the legislative process, you move."

Last Thursday, Browner's position seemed firm when she told reporters that if the Legislature failed to pass an EPA-approved a bill by Friday, "we will move ahead, unequivocally."

Browner wants California to establish a centralized system of 200 smog inspection centers, requiring drivers who need repairs to go to a separate station to have their car's emissions system fixed. The current program consists of about 9,600 centers where vehicles are both inspected and repaired.

Browner argues that the centralized system would cut down on fraud and shoddy work and result in cleaner air. But many state officials--including Republican Wilson and key Democratic lawmakers--say it would put thousands of testing stations out of business and force drivers to wait in long lines to have their cars inspected.

On taxes, the Assembly and Senate took different approaches on a package of tax incentives meant to induce businesses to create more jobs in California.

The bill emerged in the final three days of the legislative session, after Brown and his staff worked out details with the powerful business lobby, the California Manufacturers Assn.

Brown described the bill as "the finest we can do," and hailed it as a jewel to cap a year in which the Legislature made repeated attempts to side with business and stimulate the economy.

Brown's tax package passed the Assembly 62 to 10 and was embraced by Wilson.

But in the Senate, Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-HaywardFremont), who is likely to be the next Senate president pro tem, was working to pare back the tax package.

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