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Florida debates auto-safety legislation // EMISSIONS TESTING

It started as a way to help Floridians breathe easier by reducing smog in urban areas.

But now a lawmaker wants to scale back the state's automobile emissions program, saying the fees car owners pay for tailpipe tests are a way for the state to sock it to the public.

"It is not about the environment," said Rep. Jim Fuller, R-Jacksonville, in a scathing attack on the state's program to protect clean air. "It is about the money."

Fuller's measure, which narrowly passed a House committee Thursday, would require motorists to get their cars checked once every two years, instead of annually.

His proposal also would exempt all cars five years old and newer from testing, since new cars are built to limit pollution. About 1 percent of those cars fail inspection.

A similar plan is awaiting action in the Senate, but the plan does have opponents. It squeaked through the House Transportation Committee with a 5-4 vote.

"I think it will have an adverse effect on the air quality situation," said Rep. Elaine Bloom, D-Miami Beach.

A similar bill filed last year did not succeed in any committee.

Currently, cars and light trucks, model year 1975 or newer, must be tested every year if they are registered in the most urban counties.

Each visit costs $10, and the fee is split between the state and the private contractor operating the station. Legislative analysts say Fuller's proposal would save the public up to $40-million a year.

"We're here to serve the people," Fuller told legislators Thursday, "not to take the people's money just because we can create a program."

The program was started in 1990 to help reduce ozone levels in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Duval counties. Ozone is the key ingredient of smog.

The program is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which must approve the state's emissions testing plan.

Since the program started six years ago, counties' ozone levels have improved to acceptable ones, said Peggy Maloney, an analyst with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In the fiscal year that ended in 1996, about 7 percent of the 625,690 vehicles tested in Hillsborough County failed. Of the 626,307 vehicles tested in Pinellas County during that same time, about 6 percent failed.

If Fuller's measure passes, state environmental officials do not expect pollution to get much worse, despite estimates that annual inspections would decrease from 4.7-million to 1.3-million.

The DEP has estimated the plan would cause just a 2 percent increase in the release of nitrous oxides. The department is not opposing the bill, Maloney said. The EPA has said it would not object to Fuller's plan.

Indeed, a 1995 law will exempt cars less than two years old from testing, starting May 1, 2000. Fuller's bill would take effect April 1, 1998.

State environmental regulators had a problem with Fuller's original idea, which would have exempted all cars built after 1988, Maloney said. Aging exhaust systems tend to pollute more, she said.

But even a five-year-old car is too old for Rep. Randy Mackey, D-Lake City, who voted against the plan. Because of Florida's climate, exhaust systems wear down quickly, he said.

Despite the narrow margin of victory Thursday, there was little vocal opposition and the debate was brief.

Former state Sen. Curt Kiser of Palm Harbor, now a lobbyist for one of the private contractors that operates testing stations in Dade and Palm Beach counties, said scaling back the program could be irresponsible.

"We did everything we could to make this program user-friendly," Kiser said, recalling his days in the Senate. "We've had very high acceptance ratings."

Will Davis, director of environmental management for Pinellas County, said he thinks the program, rather than shrinking, should be expanded to suburban and outlying counties, such as Pasco, Hernando and Citrus.

Davis added that the inspection should be more than a tailpipe check. Inspectors should be required to lift the hood and check more engine parts.

Fuller's proposal "is not going to break the program," Davis said. "It's regressing a little bit. I don't know whether or not that's significant."

NOW

Cars and light trucks 1975 or newer must be tested annually.

PROPOSED

Cars older than 5 years would be tested every two years. Newer cars would be exempt.

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