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A healthy discount

'Feebates' on new-car purchases are a no-cost way to fight pollution. The Assembly should sign on.

January 24, 2008

If California lawmakers could dramatically cut greenhouse gases without costing taxpayers a cent or hurting consumers or businesses, and also reduce reliance on imported oil, wouldn't they be crazy not to? The obvious answer to that question eludes the Assembly, where a cowardly performance by a group of Southern California members has stalled a common-sense bill.

AB 493 from Assemblyman Ira Ruskin (D-Redwood City) would create a "feebate" program for new-car purchases. Feebates are an old idea but one seldom given a chance to work because of opposition from business interests, in this case car dealers. They nudge consumers into making socially responsible choices -- like buying cars that get better mileage and pollute less -- by giving them rebates, which are funded by charging a fee to consumers who buy harmful products -- like low-mileage, highly polluting vehicles.

The bill wouldn't harm people who need light-duty trucks -- pickups, SUVs and minivans -- as its critics claim, because it specifies that some of those vehicles must be available without fees. It doesn't hurt small businesses, because those with fewer than 25 employees are exempted. The bill, which calls for fees and rebates of up to $2,500 a vehicle, is carefully constructed to ensure that it doesn't cost any taxpayer money. It's even unlikely that it would cost car dealers, because while the fee would doubtless discourage purchases of Hummers, the rebate would entice customers to buy efficient cars they might not otherwise be able to afford.

California has mandated a 25% cut in greenhouse gases by 2020. With vehicles accounting for up to 40% of the state's global warming emissions, a big part of the cut must come from cars and trucks. Yet the state's ambitious effort to reduce tailpipe emissions by ordering manufacturers to produce cleaner cars has been blocked by the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes bills such as AB 493 all the more crucial; even if the EPA reverses its position, the feebate would complement the emissions program. The University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute estimates that the bill would cut greenhouse gases from automobiles up to 27% by 2016.

AB 493 is expected to return to the Assembly before Jan. 31 for a last-chance vote. It needed 41 votes to pass last summer but was stalled by a 35-35 tie. All the chamber's Republicans opposed it, along with three Democrats. It still might have passed in the Assembly, which has a 48-to-32 Democratic majority, if 10 local Democrats hadn't abstained. One, Nell Soto (D-Pomona), gets a pass because of illness; the rest may have caved in to pressure from car dealers in their districts. They are Assemblymen Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles), Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), Felipe Fuentes (D-Arleta), Edward Hernandez (D-West Covina), Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge) and Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), as well as former Assemblywoman Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach), who has since been elected to Congress. Calls from their constituents might help them grow a backbone the second time around.

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