The prospect that California may have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unconstitutional taxes was apparently not enough to persuade the Legislature to end the highly unpopular smog-impact fee this year.
Legislators have shelved a measure aimed at killing the tax, despite a 1997 Superior Court ruling that the $300 fee levied on each out-of-state vehicle brought into California and registered for use here is an unconstitutional infringement on federal interstate commerce laws.
"This is a question of money," state Sen. Maurice Johannessen (R-Redding), sponsor of legislation to abolish the tax, said in an interview this week. "They [legislators] are so used to suckling on that $70 million a year that it's hard to get out of it."
The smog-impact fee was enacted in 1990 under the assumption that out-of-state vehicles emit more pollution than those certified under California's tougher smog rules. But critics contend that these out-of-state vehicles generally have the same equipment as California-certified cars and trucks and are able to pass all the smog tests administered by the Bureau of Automotive Repair of the state Department of Consumer Affairs.
Johannessen's bill would have ended collection of the fee, though it would not have required refunds on any past taxes. The bill was shelved in May in a Senate committee, as it was last year. But opponents of the tax hope it will be reconsidered again next year, warning that the potential financial effects of the court ruling are growing worse, to the tune of $60 million to $70 million a year.
"It will mount up real quick," Johannessen said. "At least stop the bleeding now."
Meanwhile, the Department of Motor Vehicles, which collects the tax for the Bureau of Automotive Repair, has done an about-face in its handling of demands for refunds by disgruntled motorists.
Perhaps sensing an administrative disaster if the Superior Court ruling is sustained, the DMV is now advising anybody who has paid the tax to file a request for a refund.
Earlier, the agency said in a statement to The Times that such demands for refunds were premature and that it would publicize the availability of refunds if the tax were ultimately ruled unconstitutional. But the DMV took the opposite position in court papers, asserting that it would require individuals to specifically file for refunds.
In a new statement issued to The Times, the DMV is now advising that motorists "who paid the $300 out-of-state smog fee can protect their right to a refund by filing a claim for refund with the state Board of Equalization."
The DMV said it intends to hold the claims, "pending resolution of current litigation," meaning until its appeal of the lower court ruling is resolved. "Should the resolution include provision for refunds, the claims will be processed to determine eligibility and refunds made accordingly."
Does the DMV even know who has paid the tax or whether it will be forced to pay everybody who makes a claim? Agency officials say they are keeping track. "There are records we can check," spokesman Evan Nossoff said.
Most issues involving the DMV require a form, and the request for smog tax refunds is no different. A general DMV refund form can be found on the agency's Web site (http://www.dmv.ca.gov) in a section labeled "Forms." The form, known as an ADMIN 399, is also available at the agency's field offices.
Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.