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The poor get poorer

Jack Balshaw 9/11/2002


Have you noticed how often one group's solution to a problem results in others paying the price? The latest example of this is state legislation to raise the smog standards autos in the Bay Area must meet to get reregistered. The new standard is called Smog II and will take effect in January of 2004.

The background is this. The Central Valley has to reduce its production of smog producing emissions by 300 tons per day. Valley residents feel Bay Area pollutants blowing into their area contribute to their smog and so we need to clean up our act. A reasonable position. However, reducing Bay Area production of pollutants by Smog II will only reduce Valley emissions by 13 tons per day, or 4 %.

The impact of having to pass a Smog II inspection however will be appreciably costlier and will fall on those least able to pay. Smog II requires new testing equipment estimated to cost about $50,000 per smog inspection station. This cost will of course be passed on to the motorist at a fee estimated at between $20 and $80.

Again, this might not seem too expensive to many. BUT, vehicles less than six years old are exempt!! So who does this leave to be inspected and to pay not only the extra $20 to $80 but also the cost of engine repairs necessary to bring the auto into compliance? The majority of owners of autos more than six years old are going to be people who can't afford newer cars, our poorer citizens. And many of these autos won't be able to pass Smog II without repairs costing more than the car is worth.

The bottom line is that our legislators and clean air enthusiasts have made a small dent in the Central Valley's air quality problem by passing the cost of that small improvement off on a segment of the population least able to afford it. This happens over and over without anyone noticing how much the increased cost is paid by those least able to afford the individual cost for each new regulation or fee and especially the cumulative cost of the growing number of regulations and fees.

Locally, the impact of this can be seen in regulations to prohibit wood burning fireplaces and the substitution of gas burning ones in their place. Many might not see this as unfair or as passing costs on to those unable to afford them. Those able to afford the fireplace gas burn it and those who can't don't. It seems as simple as that. But, what are the actual results of this regulation?

The recreational or aesthetic use of gas fireplaces consumes gas. This impacts the supply and demand and increases cost. This cost is passed on to all gas users whether or not they have or use a gas fireplace. The end result is those families who use gas only in a central furnace to heat their homes and their hot water tanks have to pay more for simply staying warm.

These things don't get discussed when regulations are being considered because, for those making regulations, the incremental costs to them are minimal. Very few lawmakers or regulators can be considered poor. Accordingly they also are not aware of how the costs of their actions are passed on to those least able to afford it.

Let me give one simpler example. The fine for going through a red light is $270. It's $270 whether you earn $15,000 or $150,000 a year. This may make all red light violators equal before the law but it's sure not penalizing them equally.

The poor not only get poorer as the result of new regulations, but they are often penalized out of proportion to their ability to pay. As we pass more and more regulations and fees nationally, statewide and locally, I hope our legislators will be aware of not only who benefits but also who, in the end, pays the highest price.


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