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O.C. Legislators Turn Guns on AQMD Powers : Regulations: Proposed legislation would also restrict agency’s budget and require an advocate for business. Air-quality officials say many of the reforms are already in place.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying the pendulum has swung too far in favor of the environment over business, a pair of Orange County lawmakers introduced a package of legislation Thursday that would sharply curtail the powers of air quality regulators in Southern California.

State Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange) and Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) unveiled more than a half-dozen bills that would curb the South Coast Air Quality Management District on a variety of levels, including a tough restriction on its budget.

One bill authored by Pringle would require the state Legislature to ratify any decisions made by the district board that would cost more than $500,000 for employers in the region to implement. Another would scuttle the AQMD’s much-maligned requirement that businesses reduce the number of car trips by workers.

Legislation by Lewis would require the AQMD to hire an ombudsman to serve as an advocate for business. It would also create an independent board to review appeals of AQMD fines and other decisions.

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AQMD officials countered by saying that many of the issues raised by the Orange County legislators have already been addressed, and suggested that the bills were pointless, given existing federal laws that require Southern California to clean up its air.

“They’ve thrown in everything but the kitchen sink,” said Claudia Keith, an AQMD spokeswoman. “It seems a little bit of an overkill. We have a lot of these business reforms in place already.”

But the two Orange County lawmakers insisted that their legislation addresses unresolved issues and answers the pleas of manufacturers and other business owners weighed down by what they say are overzealous AQMD regulators.

“The AQMD is driving businesses away from our state,” Lewis declared. “They’re an unchecked bureaucracy that is making Draconian decisions. They’re not reasonable. This is a package of bills to reign them in and make California more hospitable to business.”

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Lewis predicted that the legislation would have only a 50% chance of passage once environmentalists and lobbyists from the AQMD weigh in. Even so, both lawmakers suggested that the state’s ongoing recession has many grumpy legislators in Sacramento, including some Democrats, in a mood for change.

“Small businesses in the South Coast region are feeling the impacts of the AQMD,” Pringle said. “When you talk about (building) the economy, you have to start with over-regulation on business by the AQMD. I think these bills are a start.”

The legislation introduced by Lewis and Pringle would:

* Cap the AQMD’s annual budget at its current level of $110 million and limit the revenue it keeps from fines to $2.5 million. The rest would go toward purchasing and scrapping old autos that belch a disproportionate percentage of the region’s pollution. Lewis noted that a similar car-scrapping program sponsored by Union Oil Co. in 1990 and 1991 proved to be 30 times more cost-effective than the district’s trip reduction program.

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* Enact reforms that were recommended last year by a special AQMD commission, but then rejected by the agency’s board. The reforms, contained in an omnibus bill by Lewis, would prohibit the district from regulating land use and workplace safety. It would require air regulatory agencies throughout the state to establish business assistance offices. In addition, first-time offenders of AQMD regulations would be exempt, unless the violation was intentional and flagrant. The bill would also prohibit air regulators from requiring employers to charge their workers for parking, an idea Lewis called “the ultimate in government intrusion.”

* Require the South Coast AQMD to hire an independent analyst to review the accuracy of the agency’s socioeconomic impact reports conducted on its new rules and regulations.

Pringle’s proposal to do away with trip-reduction requirements on business, which the AQMD hopes will increase passenger volumes to 1.5 per vehicle by 1999, was prompted by what he said was a costly program that is yielding insignificant results. In the Garden Grove Unified School District, for instance, it will cost $100,000 to put the program in place in 1993-94 alone, he said.

“There has to be a balance between the environment and the economy, and the pendulum has swung way too far to the side of environment,” Lewis said. “It’s time to bring it back.”

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Keith of the AQMD, however, said that the agency is “mandated by the law” to enact many of the regulations and restrictions that irk the Orange County lawmakers. In addition, their bills in some cases replicate programs already in place.

She said the agency already has a small-business assistance office staffed by eight or nine people. It also has instituted a program, expected to go into high gear this summer, to scrap old cars, Keith said.

Lewis said the AQMD’s budget has increased 120% over the past five years, but Keith countered that the agency has had a staff freeze on for the last two years, and its budget has dropped by more than 3% in that time.

She also argued that the AQMD has left “land-use judgments up to local governments” and has continued to “work with the business community and try to be business friendly.”

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Finally, Keith said that Pringle’s proposal to require the Legislature to ratify any AQMD ruling that costs the region more than $500,000 to enact “seems like it would be very cumbersome.”

“We’d be tied up in red tape and never get anything done on either side, for business or the environment,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s very realistic.”


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