The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) is attempting to pass a new sales tax that would be levied on the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino in order to fund clean air initiatives to help the agency fulfill federal mandates.
Derrick Alatorre, the agency’s deputy executive officer of legislative, public affairs and media, told the Business Journal that this effort first requires the establishment of a new voting district that would overlay these four counties. San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, a member of SCAQMD’s 13-member governing board, has called this “an overreach of the district’s authority.” Rutherford was one of four members to vote against pursuing a sales tax measure when it was discussed by the board late last year.
SCAQMD is now seeking an author in the state senate or assembly to sponsor an authorization bill to create a new voting district, Alatorre said. If a new district were established, a sales tax bill could then be drawn up in the legislature or brought to the voters directly to create a ballot initiative.
Alatorre said that his agency would prefer not to ask Californians to pay another tax, but considers this the only way to achieve the standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “We feel that it’s very unfair for the federal government to lay these mandates on us . . . yet we don’t have the authority to regulate them,” he said. “So we’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”
SCAQMD’s proposed sales tax would be used to create incentives and programs to reduce pollution in the 10,743-square-mile South Coast Air Basin, which the agency reports as containing half the population of California. Under the revised 2015 standards of the Clean Air Act, SCAQMD has until 2023 to reduce the level of ozone pollutants in the basin. Failing to do so could incur sanctions from the federal government, Alatorre said. “As an example, they can take away all transportation dollars from our region,” he explained. Another measure the federal government could take, he went on, would be to essentially double the price of credits that companies doing business in California must purchase to offset their emissions.
According to Alatorre, SCAQMD does not currently have the ability to meet the air quality standards set by the federal government. “We don’t have regulatory authority over mobile sources [of pollution], whether they be in-state or out-of-state,” he said. Currently, the agency can only regulate stationary sources of air pollution and public fleets such as garbage trucks and street sweepers.
There are more than 20,000 miles of highways and surface streets in the South Coast Air Basin, according to SCAQMD’s 2016 Air Quality Management Plan. To reduce the volume of pollution emitted by vehicles traveling on these roads, the agency has calculated that $16 billion is needed for control strategies and incentive programs to promote the adoption of clean air vehicles.
Rutherford told the Business Journal that the proposed tax is not necessary if the state utilizes its current funds to promote cleaner vehicles, such as the revenues from its cap-and-trade program. The program, enforced by the California Air Resources Board, allows companies to buy credits for pollution emitted. “That’s the money that should be used to create incentives,” Rutherford said. She also said the federal government should enact policies or direct funding to the basin to meet its pollution standards if SCAQMD has no power to do so.
Rutherford was concerned that, should a new sales tax be levied on the region, not every city or county would pay its equal share. California has a minimum sales tax of 7.25%, which can only be raised another 3% by individual counties, municipalities or districts. “The max is 10.25% and you’ve got a couple cities in Los Angeles County that are already there,” Rutherford explained. Long Beach is one such city. Because the SCAQMD’s proposed district would overlap four counties, there is a scenario in which L.A. County residents could vote to raise a new sales tax that other cities and counties would have to pay for, Rutherford said.