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Free Air, Water at Gas Stations Is Legislator’s Battle Cry

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying she’s championing the motoring public’s best interests, Nell Soto’s battle cry is “free air and water.”

For years, the Pomona grandmother has been frustrated that when she wheels into a service station looking for air and water for her car, she frequently must shell out a quarter for them.

Now, as a newly minted member of the Assembly, Soto is trying to turn a pet peeve into the law of California.

Declaring that she’s striking a blow for working people in her suburban and blue-collar district, Soto is pushing legislation requiring all gas stations to offer air for tires and water for motors--at no cost.

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State law already requires air and water to be available at gas stations--but they don’t have to be free. Soto’s bill would expand current law by requiring free water and air by Jan. 1, 2001.

“The big oil companies can afford it . . . think how much money they are making,” said Soto, who drives a state-leased Ford station wagon. “It will be good PR for service stations.”

Not everyone believes this is necessarily the best use of Soto’s time and energy. And service station owners, who don’t want any part of her proposal, AB 531, are planning to oppose it.

“This certainly isn’t pro-business. This is basically penalizing you for having a business,” said Will Woods, executive director of the Irvine-based Automotive Trade Organizations of California.

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“It basically says that air and water are essential to the safe operation of a motor vehicle,” Woods said. “So are tires. Should they offer them for free?”

Other critics say stations don’t have room for the equipment and it’s costly to maintain.

Oil companies oppose the bill as well.

Scott Loll, a spokesman for Arco, said the question of whether to charge for air and water should be left to the companies. “We believe this sort of thing shouldn’t be legislated,” Loll said. Arco charges 25 cents for air and water at the 650 stations it owns and operates in California.

“My special interest is the consumer,” said Soto, adding that although the fee for water and air “doesn’t seem like much . . . it’s nickel-and-diming people to death.”

A gray-haired former Pomona councilwoman, Soto bills herself as the only great-grandmother serving in the Capitol. At 72, she’s also the oldest member of the Legislature.

Her husband, Philip Soto, served in the Assembly in the 1960s and was one of the first Latinos elected to the Legislature since the early days of California. He died in 1997.

Nell Soto’s 61st Assembly District, which overlaps Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, has been represented in recent years by Republicans. But last November, Soto won her seat with 56% of the vote.

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By the end of February, the deadline for introducing bills, Soto was the author or coauthor of 19 measures. Several focus on education issues, including a proposal aimed at boosting parent involvement in public schools and one to establish a “safe routes to school” program.

Like many lawmakers, Soto has introduced some legislation drawn directly from her own experience and those of her constituents. The free air and water bill is one of those.

Soto said that, like the voters who sent her to Sacramento, she has on occasion been unable to even find air or water at gas stations.

In 1984, a measure by Assemblyman Lou Papan (D-Millbrae) enacted into law required service stations to furnish air and water. An aide to Papan said the lawmaker believed gas stations needed to provide “some basic auto service.”

Under the law, it is an infraction for a service station not to offer adequate air and water for five straight days.

Tom Papageorge, head deputy for consumer protection in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, said he’s not aware of complaints about a lack of water and air at gas stations. But he said local consumer agencies may field such complaints.

Soto’s bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

The rookie lawmaker recalls that 25 years ago, March Fong Eu, then an Oakland assemblywoman, initiated a drive to abolish pay toilets throughout the state.

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So, Soto asked, “why can’t we [also] supply air and water” without charge?


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