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Editorial

Proposed changes to Maryland’s vehicle emissions inspection program put the burden to pay for it on low-wealth individuals. Gov. Moore and the legislature should step in | COMMENTARY

Motorists wait in lines for their turns to have their vehicles tested at the VEIP (Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program) testing station on Erdman Avenue. File. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Before leaving office, Gov. Larry Hogan took the unusual step of moving forward with revised regulations concerning Maryland’s Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program (VEIP), despite strong opposition from the legislative committee that oversees new rules. He certainly had authority to do so. The Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review has the power to halt emergency regulations but only to advise the executive branch in cases like this. But given the overwhelming opposition expressed by Democratic senators and delegates — and thus the likelihood they will be reversed either by the General Assembly through law or Gov. Wes Moore through administrative action in the weeks ahead — Hogan’s decision invites closer inspection.

Why all the fuss over revised VEIP rules? There was concern that the revisions went too far (well beyond the scope of what lawmakers intended when they created the original VEIP program nearly 40 years ago), but there was also this: The new rules would ease the burden of VEIP testing for newer model cars.

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On one hand, that makes perfect sense. Studies have shown that newer cars are already more likely to pass the test, which involves taking your car or truck to a VEIP station or self-service kiosk and monitoring what is coming out of the tailpipe (the exact procedure varies by model year). Currently, testing costs $14 (less in self-service) and you’re good for two years. The goal is to lower harmful emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone, a major component of smog. But if the burden of testing is lifted from newer vehicles — which are, of course, more likely to be owned by more affluent individuals — that means a greater burden of the antipollution program falls to those who are less affluent, which likely means a higher testing cost.

Add to this significant repair costs from older vehicles failing the test, and you can see why Democrats deem this bad public policy. In other words, a governor who pledged to “leave no one behind” is about to get stuck with a program where less affluent — and more likely nonwhite — residents were left behind.

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Is there a solution? Surely, there’s a way to recognize that brand-new cars don’t need to be tested as frequently, while not burdening lower-income vehicle owners with a greater percentage of pollution control costs. Had the Republican administration shown a greater interest in negotiating such a compromise with Democratic leaders in the General Assembly, doubtless one might have been struck. But perhaps not if your primary interest is in cementing a legacy of fee reductions for certain preferred constituents without regard to their adverse consequences for others.

Yet here’s the bigger concern. As Maryland moves forward with efforts to reduce air pollution and address climate change, consideration for not expanding the gap between the haves and have-nots ought to be a guiding principle. Too often, low-income Marylanders, often people of color, face worse health risks — living near the BRESCO trash incinerator in South Baltimore, for example — while the affluent can afford to live far away from polluters. And the rich can sometimes sidestep taxes just as easily. New vehicles are not only less polluting, but they tend to get far better gas mileage. The result? The owner of a $50,000 hybrid or electric vehicle may end up paying much less in the state gas tax, currently 42.7 cents per gallon of regular unleaded in Maryland, than the owner of a $5,000 clunker. Is that really the best way to finance transportation projects from new roads to expanded transit?

No doubt a lot of car owners don’t really enjoy their biennial trips to one of Maryland’s 18 VEIP stations. But what they ought to appreciate is how those inspections have helped clean up Maryland’s air and contributed to health and longevity. Paying taxes isn’t particularly fun either, but when it’s time to build or repair roads and bridges or provide affordable public transportation, that revenue is essential.

We urge Gov. Moore to reverse the rules change and legislators to fix them. But lawmakers should also set a higher standard for anti-pollution laws and regulations in the future to prevent unduly burdening low-income households for costly public health improvements. Equity matters in pollution standards as much as it does in employment, in law enforcement and in education.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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