Bill raises question about emissions enforcement

Environmental advocates fear an otherwise innocuous bill, House Bill 729, will lead drivers to slack off in getting emissions tested as required in polluted areas.

Not so, the bill’s sponsor says.

Annual emissions testing is required for most cars in metro Atlanta, where poor air quality has left the area out of compliance with federal air standards.

HB 729 is touted as clean up legislation for a law passed in 2012 that allows car buyers to pay a big one-time tax on their car, rather than the annual “birthday” tax. And a provision buried on the 22nd page can be read sort of as a kind gesture to drivers. It would allow drivers who’ve paid their ad valorem tax already, or paid ahead, to only register every few years — every two, three, four or five years, as they like.

The problem for environmentalists: That annual car registration is currently the way the state enforces a requirement that car owners in polluted areas get their annual emissions tests. No passing grade? Then no return letter with that shiny little date sticker for your license plate — showing all police officers in view that your registration is current.

In theory, nothing would change the general requirement that people trundle off to the testing garage every year. But it’s unclear why they would do that in the interim years if they don’t have to get the registration sticker, some fear.

On an initial reading of the bill, “I’m concerned about that,” said Keith Bentley, chief of the air protection branch of the state’s Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources.

Annual emissions testing is a linchpin in metro Atlanta’s battle to meet federal air standards, Bentley said. If the bill effectively relaxes enforcement, he said, “frankly I don’t know how we would adjust to deal with that.”

Groups who were concerned seemed to have just noticed the provision, and they weren’t 100 percent sure what the impact would be. Spokesmen for the EPD and the Atlanta Regional Commission, which deals with air quality attainment for the region, said they were just made aware of the provision and would fully review it.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Tom Rice, a Republican from Norcross and chairman of the House Motor Vehicles Committee, said the emissions requirement wouldn't go away and the Department of Revenue would make it work. "They'll work out a new procedure," Rice said.

The enforcement method would be up to the Department of Revenue, he said, and for example, it might create an additional sticker that emissions garages would give out to drivers who pass their tests. He pointed out that the Department of Revenue has followed the bill and did not raise concerns.

A spokesman for the department, Nick Genesi, said he couldn’t comment on how the department would deal with the new provisions because the legislation is pending. He said the department’s involvement with emissions is currently limited to a computer system that connects emissions to registration; and the emissions requirements fall under another agency, the EPD.

The bill is expected to be on the calendar for a vote Monday by the House.