The state clean air plans for Houston-Galveston and Dallas-Fort Worth are in jeopardy as the means of funding for them has been ruled unconstitutional.
Federal environmental officials are preparing to deliver a sharp warning to their Texas counterparts: Get the Houston-Galveston area's clean air plan back on track by September 2003 or we may have to do it for you.
So said the state's top environmental regulator Wednesday as he and other state officials warily awaited an announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on clean air plans for the Houston-Galveston and Dallas-Fort Worth regions.
Jeff Saitas, executive director of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, said he expects the EPA to announce, perhaps today, that both plans are in trouble with the federal regulators because of a collapse of funding for a key package of incentives that could significantly reduce air pollution. The EPA had no comment.
Saitas said it is his understanding the "approved" status of the Houston plan will not change until Sept. 1, 2003. If the Legislature has not restored funding by then, the EPA will find that the state is failing to implement its plan as promised and could withdraw its approval.
That could result in the loss of billions of dollars in federal highway funds and a federal plan, rather than a state plan, to clean the air.
The incentive package, known also as Senate Bill 5, is a crucial ingredient in efforts to cut air pollution in Texas metropolitan areas that do not meet the federal Clean Air Act's air quality standards.
It offers grants and incentives to private citizens, government entities and businesses who voluntarily purchase cleaner vehicles and equipment or who act to achieve greater energy efficiency.
When the bill was introduced by Sen. Buster Brown, R-Lake Jackson, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, the $137 million cost was to be funded by taxes and fees on such things as vehicle inspections, new vehicle purchases, hotel occupancy and taxi rides in polluted areas.
But, wary of voter reaction to the new fees and taxes, the bill emerged with about three-quarters of the funding coming from an inspection fee on all out-of-state vehicles -- a fee that went from $1 to $225 per vehicle with a stroke of Gov. Rick Perry's pen.
The fee was challenged by two Austin-area auto dealers and ruled unconstitutional by state District Judge Lora Livingston.
Sadly, it ain't gonna get better any time soon:
The Legislature will fund the plan, all agree, but the question is how.
"As a state, we place the highest priority on protecting health, and I am confident we will work to provide the funding necessary to acquire final approval," Perry said.
He and Democratic gubernatorial rival Tony Sanchez, however, pledge no new taxes.
"Tony has said tax and fee increases are absolutely off the table," said Sanchez campaign spokesman Mark Sanders.