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Smog Fee Refund Bills OKd by Legislature

Finances: Motorists who have paid to register vehicles from out of state since 1990 may begin getting checks in August.

May 26, 2000|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis' proposals to refund $665 million to motorists who paid "smog impact" fees to register their out-of-state cars got a jump start in the Legislature on Thursday.

In a prelude to expected final passage next week, the Senate and Assembly unanimously approved a pair of bills designed to put the first batch of refund checks in the mail early in August.

Officials estimated that rebates will average $397, including interest. About 1.7 million vehicle owners, lessees and car dealers who paid the fee from 1990 through last October will be eligible. The $300 "smog impact" fee, levied on out-of-state cars and trucks being registered in California, was ruled unconstitutional by the state 3rd District Court of Appeal last year.

Davis agreed not to appeal the court's ruling and in November ordered that the Department of Motor Vehicles quit collecting the fee.

Although the ruling applied only to motorists who paid the fee in the past three years, Davis went further. His proposal requires that everyone who paid it, starting in 1990, must be reimbursed, not only for the $300 fee, but also for accumulated interest and any penalties paid.

"These were illegal fees implemented under the Deukmejian administration, collected during the Wilson administration and they will be refunded during the Davis administration as soon as possible," said Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean.

One bill that incorporates the governor's wishes, AB 809, introduced by Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), cleared the Senate without debate in less than a minute, 35-0. A similar scene was repeated in the Assembly, which approved a companion bill, SB 215, introduced by Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach), 72-0.

One Republican, Assemblyman Tom McClintock of Northridge, criticized fellow lawmakers for taking so long. "It's appalling that it would take this Legislature this long to respond to its duty and return these illegal taxes. . . . People have a right to be angry," he said.

An outspoken foe of the fee, McClintock noted that the Legislature's own lawyer warned lawmakers when they enacted the fee in 1990 that it was unconstitutional.

Anticipating that the Legislature would enact the refund program, the Department of Motor Vehicles late last year created an online system in which applicants for the refund can file forms electronically and get in line to receive rebates. The DMV Internet page is at http://www.dmv.ca.gov. As of Thursday, a DMV spokesman said, 260,370 motorists have filed for rebates. They probably will be among the first to get checks.

The rebate bills, which will become law as soon as Davis signs them, perhaps early in June, direct the DMV to search its records and to notify motorists who paid the fee that they are eligible for the refund.

In turn, motorists must verify that they did pay the fee and apply for the refund. The legislation directs the DMV to make the payments promptly.

Davis spokeswoman McLean said officials anticipate that the "first batch of refunds will be in people's hands early in August," assuming the governor signs the bills in the next week or so.

"Once the system is up and running, say six months from now, it will be quicker," she said.

The legislation anticipates there will be disputes over who actually paid the registration fee and who is entitled to the rebate, especially between some car dealers and their customers. The bills direct the opposing claimants to take their fight to small claims court.

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Times staff writer Miguel Bustillo contributed to this story.

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