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Highway 1 / AUTOS, CALIFORNIA STYLE | Your Wheels

Critics Fuming as State Panel Rejects Bill to End Smog Tax

April 15, 1999|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The unpopular--and possibly unconstitutional--California smog impact fee could be around longer, after legislation to abolish the tax was dealt another major setback earlier this month.

Ever since I wrote about the $300 smog tax assessed on individuals who move into California with cars from other states, I have been inundated with letters from readers who argue that the tax is unfair and they want their money back.

Last week, a bill to end the tax was voted down in the Senate Transportation Committee. It will be reconsidered next week, but the bill has failed the last two years--despite a 1997 ruling in Superior Court that the whole tax is unconstitutional. That ruling is under appeal.

The absurdity of this whole issue is that the tax--which will bring in more than $60 million this year alone--is supposed to fund programs to assist low-income motorists who cannot afford to have their cars' emission-control systems repaired and allow the state to buy older, high-emission cars to get them off the road.

FOR THE RECORD - Dings and Scratches
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 22, 1999 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 9 Financial Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Smog tax--Because of an editing error, the Your Wheels column April 15 misstated the amount in smog impact fees California has collected since the mid-1990s. The correct figure is $250 million.

But in Senate hearings, it was disclosed that only 60 motorists had applied for help under the repair program, which is run by the Bureau of Automotive Repair.

So far, BAR has spent less than $1 million on repair assistance and has banked millions of dollars in smog taxes. An agency spokesman said BAR is easing restrictions in the program and expects the demand for repair assistance to grow.

California has collected more than $25 million on the tax since the mid-1990s, based on the theory that cars not certified to the state's tough vehicle-emissions laws should be penalized for the pollution they cause.

But many cars sold in other states are identical to California-certified vehicles, critics say, and the vast majority of cars assessed the $300 fee easily pass the state's annual smog test. Critics charge that the fee is little more than a revenue measure enacted against a group without political representation.

"Despite its name, this fraudulent fee has nothing to do with smog impact," said Larry Fafarman, president of the Committee against Unconstitutional Smog Taxes in California (larryfarma@aol.com).

Indeed, the smog fee was struck down as unconstitutional by Superior Court Judge Joe Gray in 1997 in Sacramento. The Department of Motor Vehicles, which collects the fee for BAR, is appealing and so far is not informing motorists that they may be due a refund.

Final legal briefs in the appeal will be filed Monday and oral arguments will follow with a ruling 90 days later, according to Joseph Cohen, a New York attorney involved in the case. Unlike the legislation--which would simply abolish future taxes--the court case will force California to refund past taxes.

But the thought of losing any taxes, past or future, was apparently too much for the Senate last week. The Transportation Committee voted down SB230 by one vote, out of concern for lost revenue, according to aides for Sen. Maurice Johannessen (R-Redding), who is sponsoring the bill.

Many readers of Your Wheels have asked where they can get refunds. At this point, there are no refunds being given. But Fafarman recommends people apply now for a refund. Though there is no DMV office to handle such requests, mail can be sent to DMV, 2415 First Ave., Sacramento, CA 95818.

A DMV spokesman said such letters may be premature since the courts would probably order a campaign to inform individuals on such refunds if the tax is ultimately outlawed.

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