Politics & Government

Bill to raise funds to fight pollution dies

SACRAMENTO -- A Valley state senator was thwarted this week in his effort to raise vehicle registration fees to pay for anti-pollution programs -- a defeat that air officials say could hurt efforts to clean the region's notoriously dirty air.

Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, had hoped to give the Valley air district new authority to raise fees by $30. Senate Bill 240 failed to move out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, despite support from environmentalists and farm groups -- two constituencies often at odds.

"I was literally shocked and just completely dumbfounded by the action of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, because everybody supports it now," said Florez, who plans to pursue the proposal again next year.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District viewed the bill as a key part of its plan to meet federal clean-air standards.

The district hopes to raise about $200 million a year for clean-air programs, and SB 240 "definitely would have been a step in the right direction to raise that revenue," said district executive director Seyed Sadredin. "It's really crucial for the Valley, given our near state of emergency that we have with respect to air pollution."

Under the bill, the district could have increased the amount it collects on annual vehicle fees from $7 to $37 per car registered in the Valley. Sadredin said the district's governing board was poised to adopt at least some of the increase. If the full $30 increase was implemented, the district would have gained an additional $78 million a year by 2009-10, according to estimates.

The district and farm groups originally opposed the bill because it was tied to a separate bill that would force the district to reshuffle its governing board by, among other things, adding two seats for medical experts.

An earlier version of SB 240 also would have allowed the district to increase fees on stationary pollution sources -- an idea farm leaders don't like.

Florez reduced the opposition by dropping the two provisions, though the air district board restructuring bill -- SB 719 -- is still alive as a stand-alone bill in the Assembly.

The Nisei Farmers League in Fresno -- a frequent opponent of Florez's bills -- supported SB 240 in its final version because it spread the cost of cleaning the air to all drivers, instead of just businesses, said Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the league.

But in the end, SB 240 appeared to fall victim to political gamesmanship between the Legislature's two houses.

"There's some sort of internal war going on between the Assembly and the Senate," Florez said.

Assembly Member Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he agreed with the bill's goals but decided to hold it in committee without a vote because similar bills dealing with fees had been held in the Senate.

"There's no reason why one part of the state or one legislator should be treated special; that would be unfair," he said.

He pointed to several bills that were held in the Senate, including one of his own: AB 1590, which would have allowed San Francisco officials to adopt a ballot measure that would have imposed a vehicle license fee on city residents for general revenue purposes.

Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said the Senate held Leno's bill and others like it because Perata wants to "have a larger discussion in the fall" on the appropriate way to raise general revenues.

But she said that the policy did not apply to Florez's bill, because the fee was for a specific purpose.

Florez plans to bring the bill up again in January. Now that it has strong support, he hopes to add an urgency clause to make it take effect in early 2008.

In other action this week, the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to allow drivers of smog-belching cars to replace their cars with donated vehicles. SB 23, by Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, has a goal of replacing 200 gross-polluting cars in the San Joaquin Valley. Under the plan, residents whose cars fail the state smog check could apply for a car donated by someone else. Priority would be given to low-income residents.

The bill must still pass the full Assembly and would not go into effect unless the Legislature approves and Gov. Schwarzenegger signs SB 719, the air district board expansion bill. The link to SB 719 was inserted by Democrats over the objections of Cogdill.

Environmentalists support SB 719 because they say new voices are needed on the air district board, which has been criticized for delaying the date by which the Valley must meet federal clean air standards. The extension to 2024 -- more than a decade beyond the initial deadline set by the federal government -- was approved earlier this year.

Cogdill agrees with farm groups that say the current board make-up is fine the way it is.