ANNAPOLIS -- California, here we come. Maybe.
A House of Delegates committee gave its overwhelming approval yesterday to a bill that would require all new cars sold in Maryland to meet California's tough tailpipe emission standards beginning no later than the 1998 model year.
The House Environmental Matters Committee voted 20-3 for the Schaefer administration bill, which is expected to pass the full House. However, its chances in the Senate are still in question.
The House committee amended the so-called "California cars" bill to delay its implementation, but included a provision for an earlier start time if surrounding states were to adopt similar emissions laws.
The bill would require that, starting with the 1998 model year, new cars and trucks sold in Maryland meet tailpipe emission standards set by California. The California standards are more stringent than federal regulations.
However, Maryland could move forward with the program earlier if Pennsylvania, Delaware and Northern Virginia all adopted California emissions standards in the next few years.
Schaefer administration officials say Maryland needs to go beyond federal emissions standards to curb smog in the Baltimore and Washington areas. The smog levels are considered to pose a health threat to people with asthma and lung problems, as well as to healthy people who exercise outdoors.
The cars produced under California's low-emission vehicle program are 75 percent cleaner than are now required here.
But the auto and oil industries and the state's car and truck dealers oppose the bill, arguing that it is unnecessary and potentially catastrophic for the state's economy.
The two sides dispute the costs of cleaner cars. Proponents say the electrically heated catalytic converters needed to meet the California emission standards would cost about $200, but auto industry officials argue the cost of compliance is as high as $1,200 per car.
Similar clean-car legislation passed the House last year but died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Proponents are more hopeful this year. David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief lobbyist, predicted that some form of the bill would emerge from that Senate committee.
But the committee's vice chairman, Norman R. Stone, said he would prefer to hold off on California cars. "I just don't see any urgency for it," the Dundalk Democrat said.
State officials, environmentalists and chemical manufacturers say Maryland could lose federal money and face penalties if it fails to move quickly on a smog-reducing plan.
The state's top environmental official, Robert Perciasepe, said he needs the authority to require California-type cars in a smog reduction plan that he must submit to the federal government in two years.
The Baltimore area must meet federal pollution standards by 2005.