Moving closer to a showdown with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, a legislative committee on Tuesday approved an overhaul of the California automobile Smog Check program that falls short of federal demands.
The action occurred only four days after the sudden collapse of talks between California and federal officials aimed at devising a compromise that would enable California to comply with U.S. clean air standards and avert a threatened loss of federal transportation funds.
On a 7-2 vote, the Senate Transportation Committee approved the bill and sent it to the full Senate for what probably will be final passage Friday. Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to sign it into law.
The bill would impose heavier penalties against fraudulent operators and authorize roadside remote sensors for random identification of heavy polluters.
Renewing the battle that the state and federal government fought to a cease-fire last summer, the bill retains the state's current system of inspecting and repairing vehicles at the same garage every other year.
The bill leaves the door open to separating the two functions if clean air standards are still not met, but federal EPA officials insist that California must, at the outset, separate inspection stations from the auto shops that repair cars that fail the tests.
Critics of the current system charge that it contains a built-in conflict of interest that encourages gouging of motorists and results in dirtier air. State officials concede that the system needs reform, but assert that they, not the EPA, know best how to do it.
Federal EPA officials favor the split system for use in the smoggiest regions of California, including most of Southern California, that do not meet standards of the Clean Air Act. If California does not comply, it faces the loss of at least $800 million a year in highway funds.
"There is no doubt that the EPA will be unhappy with this legislation as it stands," said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Panorama City), a lead California negotiator. "We will wind up in court, (but) I am confident it will withstand a court challenge."
Outside the hearing room, Katz, a supporter of the bill carried by Sen. Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale), said he believes that a court fight between the state and federal governments might further delay the loss of funds.
Katz told the committee that state and federal negotiators had achieved 90% agreement on a compromise solution last Friday when the EPA "pulled the plug" and abruptly served notice that it had started the clock on imposing the sanctions this spring.
However, EPA Regional Administrator Felicia Marcus has said, "There is every reason to expect that we will never impose these sanctions, provided that California works quickly to establish an acceptable smog check program."
Katz said he advised Clinton Administration officials that if they believe some political advantage could be secured against Republican Wilson by insisting on a decentralized program, they were mistaken. He noted that the Russell bill was first approved by a heavy bipartisan vote last summer.
The two negative votes against the bill in the Transportation Committee were cast by Sens. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and Lucy Killea (I-San Diego), both longtime smog fighters. Hayden has filed a lawsuit demanding enforcement of the federal clean air standards in California.