Missouri lawmakers vote to end EPA-mandated emissions testing near St. Louis

Removing three counties from the program could put Missouri at risk of federal sanctions.

Sen. Bob Onder, a Republican from Lake St. Louis (photo courtesy of Missouri Senate Communications).

With just hours left in their 2021 session, Missouri lawmakers passed legislation removing several St. Louis area counties from a federally-mandated emissions inspection program, potentially putting millions of dollars in federal funds at risk. 

But unlike earlier versions of the legislation, proponents won more support by including a clawback: If the federal government imposes sanctions on Missouri, the state will back off.

The Missouri Senate voted 29-3 on Wednesday to add the language, removing St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties from the Environmental Protection Agency program designed to bring the St. Louis area into compliance with federal air quality standards. House members followed suit 130-22 on Friday. 

Leaving the program could result in EPA sanctions, including taking over management of the state’s air quality program or revoking up to $52 million in federal highway funds, according to a fiscal note on the bill. 

A senator supportive of the move called that figure “utter nonsense.” 

“It is a question of whether we’re going to bend the knee to every federal mandate, every federal bureaucrat who wants to exercise their petty power to impose that on citizens of the United States,” said Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis.

Onder added the legislation is about more than whether residents have to get their vehicle emissions tested. 

“It’s about the principle of federalism and the rule of law,” Onder said. 

But even so, senators amended the language. They previously passed an even more stringent version of the legislation as part of Senate Bill 40, which has been widely criticized by environmentalists as an attack on the state’s air and water regulations. Some senators hoped the House would remove that more extreme language. 

As senators voted on House Bill 661 late Thursday evening and House members voted Friday afternoon, Senate Bill 40 still awaited action in the House. 

Senators instead amended the language onto House Bill 661 late Thursday evening with less than 24 hours to go in the legislative session.

The push to remove the three St. Louis-area counties from the emissions program has been primarily driven by Onder and Sen. Bill Eigel, a fellow St. Charles County Republican. But a standalone bill removing St. Charles County from the program went nowhere. 

Eigel amended the language onto Senate Bill 40, proposed by Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield. 

Several senators were wary of the fiscal note, including Sen. Justin Brown, R-Rolla, who chairs the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee. 

But the version senators endorsed Thursday night contained language saying that if the EPA made good on its ability to revoke federal funds if the state removes the counties from the program, the state will put those counties back in. 

“As a conservative, I’m not willing to gamble $52 million, but when I see language in there that says if these federal funds are jeopardized, we’ll pull it back, I do appreciate you guys working with that,” Brown said. 

A floor debate between Brown and Onder grew heated even as Brown said he supported the amended version of the proposal. He reiterated as such to Onder. 

“But you were speaking kind of against it,” Onder said, raising his voice as Brown tried to interject, “saying you’re a fiscal conservative, implying somehow that I’m not because I won’t bow the knee to a federal bureaucrat.”

Environmental groups have vehemently opposed removing the three counties from the emissions testing program, noting the air standards are set to prevent asthma and other health effects caused by air pollution. 

“The results of this action would be two-fold,” the Sierra Club’s Missouri lobbyist, Michael Berg, said in a statement last week. “First the air would be more contaminated, adding pollutants that affect sensitive people including children and cause health effects the present program helps reduce.”

Berg added: “Second, the proposal could result in the loss of federal highway funds, estimated in the fiscal note as $52 million per year. While another bill may raise the Missouri gas tax, it seems senseless to walk away from millions of federal dollars and risk Missourians’ health in the process.”

House members, running short on time before the session ended at 6 p.m. passed the legislation with little debate.