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California

Air quality board delays vote on regulating freight pollution

SAN BERNARDINO, CA - FEBRUARY 2, 2017: Smoke billows form a locomotive at the San Bernardino rail y
Smoke billows from a locomotive at a rail yard in San Bernardino. A proposal under consideration by the South Coast Air Quality Management District would pursue rules for rail yards, warehouses and major construction projects across the region.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California air quality officials delayed action Friday on a proposal to draft regulations for warehouses, rail yards and large construction projects that are responsible for much of the region’s most harmful, smog-forming emissions.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District governing board had been scheduled to vote on whether to use its authority to regulate freight facilities and development projects as indirect sources of pollution due to the large number of trucks, trains and construction equipment they attract.

But the panel postponed the matter to its next meeting in May, citing the absence of three members, including chairman William A. Burke, who was out sick.

Despite the absences, the board heard results of a poll it commissioned, which found a majority of voters in the region support the agency pursuing a local ballot measure for a quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund pollution-reduction programs.

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The tax-hike proposal is controversial and remains in early stages. If ultimately approved by voters across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties on the 2020 ballot, it could raise an estimated $700 million a year, according to the district.

Of those surveyed, 65% favor the state Legislature giving the South Coast district authority to seek voter approval of a ballot measure to raise incentive funds for cleaner cars and trucks, according to online and telephone interviews with 1,490 registered voters. A narrower majority of 54% would support a quarter-cent sales tax hike for such programs.

The air board did not take action based on the poll. It remains unclear whether such a measure would require a simple majority or a two-thirds vote to pass.

The idea has drawn criticism from environmentalists and business-aligned Republicans on the board, who say it would unfairly burden residents across the region to fund clean-air incentives to industry. But Democrats on the panel say voters should have the chance to decide how to pay for cleaning the air.

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A potential sales tax increase has emerged as one possible way for the agency to meet its obligations to cut the nation’s worst smog to federal health standards. To meet looming deadlines, the district says it must increase funding for cleaner vehicles to $1 billion a year, but so far is falling short.

Also Friday, the panel approved a $120,000 no-bid contract with the consulting firm of former California Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to help in the search for those pollution-reduction funds.

Under the agreement, Pérez’s company, Double Nickel Advisors, would provide “strategic advice” to the air district regarding its communication and messaging to the state Legislature and governor’s administration.

The contract was not competitively bid, according to a staff report, because Pérez’s position as former Assembly speaker gives his firm “special and unique capabilities that will ensure the agency’s communications ... garner support for our funding needs.”

Pérez is not registered as a lobbyist and has agreed not to lobby on the district’s behalf, according to staff for the district, which has three lobbyists in Sacramento.

The district previously hired Pérez’s firm in 2016 and records show the district has since awarded the firm more than $250,000 in strategic consulting contracts.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

@tonybarboza

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