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Legislators OK Tougher Smog Checks : Pollution: Wilson is expected to sign compromise with EPA. Action appears to end yearlong fight.

March 18, 1994|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In a compromise with federal officials who had threatened sanctions if the state failed to act, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved a beefed-up Smog Check program Thursday aimed at the dirtiest cars in the smoggiest regions of California.

Gov. Pete Wilson, whose representatives joined legislators in negotiating the clean air agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency over the last three months, is expected to sign the bill soon.

The settlement appeared to end a yearlong fight between the Wilson Administration and Clinton Administration over how best to bring California into compliance with the U.S. Clean Air Act.

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), lead legislative negotiator, told the lower house: "We have put in place the strongest, most creative program in the country, one that will clean up our air, be convenient for motorists and keep as many small (Smog Check) businesses as possible in operation."

Under the proposal, starting in 1995, 15% of the estimated 8 million cars and small trucks scheduled for testing each year in the smoggiest regions of California, including the South Coast Air Basin and Ventura and San Diego counties, would be routed into new privately operated inspection-only facilities.

The testing would be more rigorous than the examinations performed at neighborhood garages that test and repair vehicles. Aimed at worst offenders, these would include vehicles whose smog controls had been tampered with, high-mileage vehicles, "gross polluters" and a 2% random sample collected by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Katz said, "10% of the vehicles cause 50% of the pollution."

Held up as a model for other states, the compromise would set up a novel program to use public funds to subsidize owners of "gross polluters" for repair costs up to $450 or give them up to $800 to junk their vehicles.

The subsidy is intended for low-income motorists whose older vehicles pollute heavily but who cannot afford costly repairs or the purchase of a new car that meets clean air standards. Wilson vetoed a similar bill last year because it would have obligated the state to pay up to $4,800 per car.

"Either fix the cars or take them off the road," Katz said of the subsidy proposal, authored by Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco). "We've never done that before."

In California, smog inspections are required every other year, when cars must be registered and upon change of ownership.

The three-bill package was carried by Katz, Kopp and Sen. Robert B. Presley (D-Riverside) and sent to Wilson on a series of bipartisan votes that more than satisfied the two-thirds requirement for passage. The key Katz bill won 55-0 approval in the Assembly and 31-3 endorsement in the Senate.

The bills supplement legislation signed by Wilson in January that rejected the EPA's demand that automobile inspections be separated from repair services conducted at about 9,000 licensed garages in California.

Wilson and the Legislature sided with Smog Check operators, who protested that separation of the services would throw thousands of mechanics out of work. The EPA complained that the new law failed to satisfy federal standards and would bring about imposition of sanctions.

Sanctions could include hundreds of millions of dollars in lost federal highway construction funds and imposition of severe pollution discharge restrictions on new construction or expanded businesses.

Shortly after Wilson signed the law in January, the two sides returned to the negotiating table and drafted the compromise, which sailed through the Legislature with heavy bipartisan support Thursday. The next step will be filing the state's compliance plan with the EPA.

The compromise included an agreement between the Wilson Administration and the federal EPA to drop the sanctions when the plan is submitted. Assistant EPA Administrator Mary Nichols called passage of the legislation a positive step.

Supporters said the compromise contained safeguards to assure compliance even if some components of the package fail to work as expected. For example, if testing showed that federal requirements were not being met, the 15% test group could be expanded to include more vehicles.

If failure persisted, however, federal sanctions probably would imposed, officials said. Other alternatives could include legislation, renewed negotiations or court fights.

Democrats and Republicans alike boasted that the bill reflected a determination by California to resolve its own problems rather than give in to what they called federal dictates.

"Big Brother and Big Sister in Washington didn't know the right way," Katz told his colleagues. "We know a better way in California."

Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), a leading clean air advocate, was the only voice in either house to speak out against the bills. Siding with the American Lung Assn., Hayden said the compromise offered a false hope and only "put off the inevitable."

Revised Rules

Effective in 1995, here are the key provisions of new smog check legislation expected to be signed by Gov. Pete Wilson:

* Eighty-five percent of vehicles would be checked the same way they are now, at neighborhood service stations that do both testing and repair. The cost of testing is not expected to increase.

* Fifteen percent of the vehicles scheduled for smog inspections in the state's smoggiest regions would be directed to inspection-only stations that would use improved equipment. Included would be cars whose smog controls have been tampered with, taxis, high-mileage fleet vehicles, "gross polluters" and a 2% sample chosen at random.

* High-tech roadside sensors would seek out gross-polluting vehicles and record their identities for action by authorities.

* In the high-smog regions, owners of gross-polluting vehicles can collect as much as $450 from the state to help pay for repairs or up to $800 to junk the vehicle and purchase a cleaner-running one.

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