California Dreaming

As the Washington Legislature reaches the session's halfway point, they look to Sacramento

The legislative session in Olympia has reached its halfway point, which means -- as it does in football -- that it's time to switch sides. All the bills that made it through the House of Representatives in the first half have now moved to the Senate for further deliberation, and vice versa.

And while lawmakers embroiled in hammering out the state's budget are just beginning to see the end of that tunnel, they still have a handful of fairly contentious bills to look forward to before they can go home.

One of the stickiest is House Bill 1397, which would bring the state's vehicle emissions standards into line with those of California and seven other states. The bill, which was approved 53-42 after vigorous debate in the House two weeks ago, has now moved to the Senate's Water, Energy and Environment Committee. With automobile manufacturers and environmentalists at each other's throats, pols on both sides of the aisle are expecting a fight.

Here's the gist of it: If made into law, the so-called "Clean Car" bill would mandate an acute reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from new cars sold in Washington, beginning in phases either in 2009 or 2010 (depending on whether Oregon adopts the rule, too). It would also mean the phase-out of routine emissions testing in counties like Spokane, where it's required. And, if critics' suspicions prove correct, it could mean a backstage pass for the hybrid car industry

The bill's sponsors -- including Spokane Rep. Alex Wood -- reason that "reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources are necessary" and claim that those emissions are responsible for the lion's share of air pollution problems in the state. The result of this bill, they say, would be a much-needed 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2016.

And because states are given the choice, under provisions of the Federal Clean Air Act, between following federal emissions standards or the significantly stricter regulations adopted by Title 13 of the California Code in 1988 (and implemented last year), lawmakers in Olympia aim to seize on the chance to put a ding in Washington's air pollution.

But not everybody's convinced that the plan is what the state needs.

Spokane car dealership mogul Chud Wendle, who met with Gov. Chris Gregoire and Sen. Lisa Brown Monday to discuss the potential economic impact of the legislation, calls the bill a "bad idea." He says that while air pollution is a real problem, regulating it state-by-state causes "unlevel playing fields," especially for border cities like Spokane and Vancouver.

Concessions have been made for the latter; when southwest Washington implements the new regs depends on whether neighboring Oregon decides to adopt them (it's looking like they will). But since Idaho is as likely to adopt the California-style regulations as it is to elect Ralph Nader governor, legislators figure Eastern Washington should be treated like the rest of the state. "This [bill] doesn't protect Spokane," says Wendle.

He says that a quarter of Wendle Motors' business comes from customers in Idaho and Montana. If HB 1397 becomes law, compliance with regulations could -- according to some estimates -- add as much as $3,000 more to a new car's price tag. And what out-of-stater would make the trek to Spokane just to pay more?

Moreover, Wendle says, the legislation would disproportionately hurt companies (like his) that specialize in domestic trucks and SUVs for the area's farmers and loggers. He says the bill would institute a quota system, mandating that dealerships sell a higher percentage of compact, sub-compact and hybrid vehicles. That's fine for a Honda dealer in Renton, but Wendle says it could limit local domestic dealers' ability to give those East Side farmers and loggers the kinds of vehicles they need.

Foothills Auto Group President Chris Marr, on the other hand, is skeptical. Like Wendle, Marr has been closely following the issue in Olympia. He suspects that opposition to the bill is being bolstered by disgruntled auto manufacturers scaring the public with inflated figures.

That estimate that compliance with regulations could cost consumers $3,000 more per vehicle? He says it's more like $300. "[Manufacturers] typically overestimate the cost of implementing these controls by a factor of about 10," he says.

Marr points out that in the 1990s automakers claimed that compliance with 1996 federal standards would cost consumers $432 per car. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost ended up more like $88. Similarly, in 1994, manufacturers cried that bowing to California Low Emission Vehicle standards would run consumers $788; an independent study later showed the cost to be about 10 times less, $83. From air standards to air bags to bumpers, he says, manufacturers have consistently cried wolf with each new government regulation.

Besides, he says, any additional cost laid on consumers will be more than made up by the increased fuel efficiency of cars that produce fewer emissions, noting that consumers could actually save up to $18 a month on the new, compliant models. (Wendle disagrees, predicting that the rising cost of the fuel blend necessary for the new-style engines will undermine those numbers.)

Marr also dismisses opponents' concerns that Eastern Washington's farmers won't be able to buy trucks or SUVs anymore. He says that 70 percent of the vehicles he sells today are "50-state vehicles," and that all the cars you see on the roads today -- from Hummers to Priuses -- are or will be available, in modified form, in California under their new regulations.

Marr reasons that with California -- one of the largest auto markets in the world -- at the helm of this movement, and with more and more states signing on all the time, automakers can't just scoff at the regulations and refuse to sell certain models in states where those regs have taken hold.

"The fact of the matter is that you'll be able to buy those vehicles," he says, adding that markets like California are too lucrative to simply write off.

Still, how that will pan out is a matter of speculation. Though seven other states have adopted the new standards, California is one of only two to implement them so far. And since this is only the first year of that program, time has yet to tell how the legislation is working.

The other commonly echoed concern is that the bill would cede authority on matters of Washington state's air quality to lawmakers in Sacramento, not Olympia. Indeed, politicians on both sides admit that not only would the bill align Washington with the standards currently in place in California (and the seven other states), but it would also bind the state to keep up with future regulations. And Wendle notes that when legislators in Maine sought to amend the rules to exclude quotas on auto models, they were told by the federal government that it was all or nothing -- they either had to abide by all of the rules or none of them.

Rep. Alex Wood, one of the bill's sponsors, sighs: "I wish it had come out of any other state than California" -- noting Washingtonians' historic defensiveness toward Golden Staters and their fancy notions. He admits that he finds some aspects of the bill troubling -- particularly the quota system, which he feels could undercut its success -- but he seems satisfied with the caveat that Washington can pull out at any time and return to using the federal standards.

"Don't forget," he adds, noting how the growth of alternative automotive technology has been fueled by skyrocketing gas prices, "this thing doesn't even phase in fully until 2016, and who knows what the world's going to look like by then?" Low-emission hybrid cars could, by then, be not just fashionable but necessary.

Marr downplays the California connection, too, saying that the Golden State just happened to be the first to adopt the rules. They won't control Washington, he says, adding, "Would you rather have Detroit or Washington D.C. -- or how about Saudi Arabia -- having control over us?"

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About The Author

Joel Smith

Joel Smith is the media editor for The Inlander. In that position, he manages and directs and edits all copy for the website, the newspaper and all other special publications. A former staff writer, he has reported on local and state politics, the environment, urban development and culture, Spokane's...