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The State Takes the Wheel

July 03, 2002

The good guys won Monday, beating a slash-and-burn campaign by the auto industry in one of the Legislature's more titanic recent struggles. The Assembly, after a long and bitter debate, passed a landmark bill to fight global warming by limiting greenhouse gas emissions from autos, light trucks and sport utility vehicles.

The bill's modest goals survived an all-out misinformation campaign by auto makers, dealers and labor unions. The industry has long resisted safety and environmental standards, from seat belts to catalytic converters.

AB 1493, by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), was backed by environmental groups but would not have passed without the arm-twisting support of Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City). This was a watershed for the new speaker, as concerns were mounting that Wesson, the Assembly Democrats' chief fund-raiser, was reluctant to clash with wealthy special interests. Wesson muscled the bill through on a party-line vote of 41 to 30. Burton did the same in the Senate last weekend.

The bill goes to Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who sees himself as a business-friendly executive. A campaign by the same auto industry opponents to persuade Davis to veto the bill opened Tuesday. But it should be easy for Davis to come down on the green side. AB 1493 allows the governor to bolster his environmental support while pioneering in an area where President Bush fears to go. A veto would infuriate Burton and Wesson, leaders with the power to punish Davis.

In its propaganda campaign, the auto industry portrayed AB 1493 as the death knell for the auto in America as we know it. Bureaucrats on the Air Resources Board would demand production of tinny little cars that would put soccer moms and kids in the path of death. The bill would impose higher taxes and limit miles driven. There would be no more SUVs. Only the better-off could afford cars.

None of that is true. The bill directs the Air Resources Board to establish carbon dioxide standards by 2005, but they would not be in effect until the 2009 model year. Some auto companies are already planning low-emission SUVs using hybrid gas-electric engines. No kinds of vehicles are banned. The Legislature can overrule the board at any time.

Opponents derided the effect California can have on a global problem, in that it accounts for just a small percentage of overall greenhouse gases. But with the world's fifth-largest economy, the state has an influence that cannot be denied. What happens here often becomes the norm for the rest of the country. The U.S. fight to offset the potentially catastrophic effects of warming has begun in the proper place.

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