With the threat of millions of dollars in sanctions looming, Gov. Mike Parson vetoed on Friday legislation that would have removed three St. Louis-area counties from a federally mandated vehicle emissions testing program.
In a letter to lawmakers, Parson said he vetoed House Bill 661 because the potential for federal penalties undermined his administration’s work on transportation and “the state’s ability to provide reliable transportation infrastructure into the future.”
“By exempting such noncompliant counties, Missouri would violate the federal Clean Air Act and would lose significant funding for certain highway projects and grants in the St. Louis area in the amount of $52 million annually,” Parson said in his veto letter.
The Missouri Legislature passed the bill this spring despite that possibility. A fiscal note attached to the bill pegged the potential cost at $52 million. And last month, the Environmental Protection Agency warned Parson in a letter that the federal government could find Missouri out of compliance with requirements of the Clean Air Act if the program is halted.
“The sanctions that would apply, pursuant to a finding from EPA that Missouri has failed to implement any requirement of an approved state implementation plan, would be significant,” Edward Chu, the agency’s acting regional administrator, wrote.
Those could include the $52 million in highway funds Parson noted. The agency could also take over management of the state’s air quality program.
Michael Berg, a lobbyist for the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club, commended Parson for the veto, saying the decision was good for the air and for the state’s highway budget.
“We need to improve our air quality in the St. Louis area,” Berg said. “The air is not up to federal standards, and this bill would have taken away an important tool to do so and would have run afoul of the EPA guidelines.”
Franklin, Jefferson and St. Charles counties are all required to participate in a vehicle emissions inspection program to bring the area into compliance with federal clean air standards for ground-level ozone, which can cause throat irritation and exacerbate respiratory illnesses.
St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis are also in the program but were not targeted by the bill.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources had already submitted a plan to EPA to have Franklin and Jefferson counties removed from the program, citing improvements in air quality.
Legislators from the area have long sought to remove the requirement from the three counties surrounding St. Louis, saying it’s burdensome. They passed HB 661 in the waning hours of this spring’s legislative session, tacking it onto a broader transportation bill with provisions regulating towing rates and cost estimates for state construction projects that Parson also objected to.
“I hope to work with the General Assembly next session to continue addressing transportation issues facing the state without jeopardizing the state’s highway funds,” he wrote in his veto letter.
Legislators who wanted the emissions program to end said during the legislative session that the possibility of sanctions was overstated.
During debate on the bill earlier this year, Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, called the idea that EPA could take over the air quality program or impose sanctions “utter nonsense.”
“It is a question of whether we’re going to bend the knee to every federal mandate,” he said, “every federal bureaucrat who wants to exercise their petty power to impose that on citizens of the United States.”
This article by Allison Kite is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.