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Cleaner Air, Bigger Saving

August 27, 2004

The package of smog-cutting reforms state lawmakers tentatively OKd last week looks like a win both for taxpayers and the air they breathe. But as good as the plan is, lawmakers will have to do even more if California is to comply with federal clean-air requirements by 2010 and avoid the crushing fines that will accompany failure.

The plan, some elements of which still need formal approval from the Legislature and the governor, would raise about $150 million a year. Most of that money would go to clean up some of the dirtiest diesel-powered vehicles.

It's a rare program that raises money by cutting some taxpayer costs. Under current law, new-car buyers have to start getting smog checks every other year after they've owned their cars for four years; the new plan lets them wait six years for their first smog check. They would pay a little more for that privilege -- a $12 yearly exemption fee when they renewed their registration instead of the current $6 -- but given that they would avoid the $30-and-up cost of a smog check, they should still come out ahead.

Higher state fees on tire sales would offset some, but not all, of those taxpayer savings. In addition, air quality districts in the smoggiest regions, including the Los Angeles Basin, could add $2 to car registration fees, and motorists would have the option to donate $10 a year to air pollution programs when they renewed their registration.

These funds would pay for new, cleaner-burning engines for diesel school buses as well as tractors, forklifts and other equipment. Diesel emissions are a major component of smog and can contribute to cancer and respiratory diseases. The proposed new fees would provide an ongoing source of funding to retrofit 7,000 vehicles annually, removing an estimated 13 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions -- a major component of smog -- from the air each day.

Good news, as far as it goes. But in 2003, ozone levels in Southern California exceeded federal standards on 68 days, twice as many as in 2001. To meet the targets in the federal Clean Air Act, state officials estimate they'll need $250 million to $300 million annually and even tighter emissions controls. Teasing out that money from strapped budgets and tightfisted taxpayers will be a continuing challenge, and finding new ways to cut smog will require the same creativity that lawmakers displayed this year.

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