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County’s clean air programs in question after Abbott’s vetoes

Friday, July 14, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

A pair of Gov. Greg Abbott’s line-item vetoes has Travis County once again scrambling to clean up the aftermath, this time involving two air quality programs.

On June 23 12, Abbott blasted out of the state budget bill all future appropriations for the Low Income Vehicle Repair Assistance, Retrofit, and Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program, also known as LIRAP.

Since 2006, Travis County has participated in LIRAP by collecting $2 from every motor vehicle registration and inspection. That money goes to the state’s Clean Air Fund from which the Legislature appropriates it back to the county to spend on programs that help low-income residents repair smog-belching vehicles or replace them altogether.

The governor also cut just over $6 million from planning programs for areas on the verge of failing federal air quality standards. Of that money, $1.25 million would have supported the air quality monitoring effort conducted by the Clean Air Coalition, a five-county organization that is part of the larger Capital Area Council of Governments, or CAPCOG.

“To kill off LIRAP and blind us simultaneously is essentially to prevent us from being able to prove up that killing off the program has a detrimental effect on our air quality,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

CAPCOG Director of Regional Services Andrew Hoekzema told the court that his organization is dedicated to carrying the monitoring program forward. However, in lieu of state funding, CAPCOG is seeking assistance from participating jurisdictions – counties and cities – in order to keep the lights on through 2018.

The court voted 4-0 to earmark $68,516 to support the effort, with Commissioner Brigid Shea absent from the meeting.

The path forward on LIRAP, however, wasn’t so easily dispatched. As the county’s Natural Resources/Environmental Quality Division Director Jon White explained, Abbott’s veto simply blocked funding for the program until the next legislative session, rather than abolishing the program outright.

“The veto puts us in a peculiar position,” he told the court.

Based on past fee collections, the county still has $2.6 million in LIRAP allocations in the state fund. It can use that money to continue funding LIRAP programs during the two years between legislative budgets. However, any new fees the county collects after the beginning of the next fiscal year will go straight to the Clean Air Fund and be used entirely at the Legislature’s discretion.

In order to avoid losing the $2.6 million allocation, the county would have to stop collecting the LIRAP fee after Aug. 31. The process of terminating the fee, however, is not precise. The county must notify the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality of its intentions and the commission would then pass word through the Department of Public Safety and ultimately to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which physically collects the fee. White told the court that the bureaucratic machinery could take up to 120 days to effect the change.

However, as Eckhardt began fishing for a motion to notify the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, White raised a flag of caution.

“It strikes me that there’s nothing inherent in the process that would require it to take 90 to 120 days,” he said. “I think it’s something that could happen like tomorrow if somebody was so inclined.”

Intergovernmental Relations Director Deece Eckstein offered a solution he described as “very clever.” Eckstein suggested holding off the vote to notify the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality until early August, after vehicle registration forms have been printed and sent to drivers needing to renew that month. Those forms will have a notice of the fee collection and it is unlikely the DMV will print new forms without that notice until Sept. 1, Eckstein posited.

That plan convinced Eckhardt to agree to bring the item back at the beginning of August.

Before the judge wrapped up, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, participating in the meeting via a videoconference link, bellowed at what he called the state’s audacity to keep fees collected from Travis County residents for Travis County programs.

“And, you know, I’m the hardest person on the court probably to get to all of the ozone action stuff, but it is who we are and what we’ve done and I do think it’s probably helped us stay beyond that nonattainment level,” said Daugherty. “But, wow, it’s interesting that we’re having to go through this.”

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