WASHINGTON-Tire dealers and retreaders say federal health care legislation-whatever form it eventually takes-is their No. 1 regulatory concern going into the new year. Tire manufacturers, conversely, place the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, with accompanying scrap tire provisions, at the forefront of their governmental agenda for 1994.
As often happens, representatives of the major rubber, tire, retreading and auto repair associations disagreed not only on their legislative emphasis, but even on which issues Congress is most likely to proceed in the next year.
Following are capsule presentations of legislative and regulatory issues important to the industry, with comments from relevant association executives.
Of all the environmental issues still waiting to be addressed on the federal level, scrap tires is by far the most important to those who make, sell or retread tires.
Both Superfund and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, pronounced ``rick-ra'') are set to be reauthorized soon by Congress. Both will be of major importance to the future of scrap tire disposal, although for different reasons.
RCRA is the almost certain vehicle for national legislation on scrap tire disposal and recycling, and the only real chance for a federal scrap tire bill's passage. The Rubber Manufacturers Association expects the scrap tire bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., to be the model for what eventually appears in RCRA.
The Slattery bill, which was included in the RCRA bill considered in the previous Congress, would place an 85-cent fee on each tire sold at retail in the U.S., and use the money over 12 years to fund national scrap tire disposal and recycling funds.
Superfund is of special interest to tire dealers and manufacturers alike. Almost every industry in the U.S. is campaigning for changes in the law's liability provisions, which can hold waste generators liable for cleanup of hazardous waste sites from up to 30 years ago, even when they obeyed all the regulations then in force.
For tire dealers and retreaders, the Superfund liability issue is especially urgent. Large corporations cited by the Environmental Protection Agency in Superfund actions have often sued smaller generators in turn to force them to pay for cleanups.
Last year, for example, 70 tire dealers in Minnesota were the defendants in just such a ``third-party'' suit, because they had shipped scrap tires to a waste site targeted by Superfund.
The EPA does not consider scrap tires in themselves a hazardous waste. But because there was a tire fire at the Minnesota site, the plaintiffs argued the component parts of the burned tires-oil, carbon black etc.-constituted hazardous waste.
No one thinks Congress can complete action on both Superfund and RCRA in '94. Different sectors of the industry, however, disagree on which bill Congress will act.
The RMA believes RCRA will be the priority this year, and says RCRA tops its political agenda for 1994. ``RCRA is on the move,'' said Thomas E. Cole, RMA president. ``There will be movement, and tires will be part of it.''
Although Superfund was the bill Congress worked on last year, it is more likely in 1994 to advance a ``RCRA Lite'' bill, dealing only with scrap tires and a few other important items, according to Peter J. Pantuso, RMA vice president of public affairs.
``There's been so little movement on Superfund,'' Mr. Pantuso said. ``If they decide to move a RCRA Lite, they won't have time to do Superfund as well.''
The American Retreaders' Association, on the other hand, feels there probably won't be a RCRA reauthorization in 1994. The ARA dislikes the Slattery provisions, which it feels shortchange retreaders by not providing sufficient safeguards to ensure a steady supply of retreadable casings.
Rep. Al Swift, D-Wash., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Transportation and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, has said he doesn't believe Congress can finish Superfund this year, according to Donald T. Wilson, government relations director of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association.
Mr. Swift retires at year's end, and his ambition is to reauthorize Superfund before he leaves. Nevertheless, EPA Administrator Carol Browner's top legislative priority remains Superfund, Mr. Wilson noted.
``There is a desperate need to rewrite Superfund,'' he said. ``Not just scrap tires, but used oil and batteries as well, are causing headaches for dealers in the context of hazardous waste sites.''
The prospect of a national health care bill is a matter of concern for everyone in the industry. But for small-business owners like most tire dealers and retreaders, health care mandates resemble a nightmare.
The NTDRA, ARA and Automotive Service Association are all very concerned about the employer requirements of the Clinton proposal, which requires employers to provide full health care to employees and their families while paying 80 percent of the cost.
``For small businesses, that's a serious add-on, particularly if you're doubling or tripling coverage to include families,'' said Robert L. Redding, Washington representative for the Automotive Service Association.
Generally, these associations prefer the bill sponsored by Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, in the House, and by Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and David Durenberger, R-Minn., in the Senate. This bill, the only health care proposal with real bipartisan support, would require employers to offer health care, but not necessarily to pay for it.
The concerns about universal health care mirror the general concern these small business representatives have regarding mandated employee benefits-benefits that are passed and promulgated without their advice.
``The business input on the health care issue has been from big business,'' said Roy E. Littlefield III, ARA government relations director. ``That's why General Motors is supporting the president's plan....,'' Mr. Littlefield continued. ``Clinton assumed small business will follow, and that's just not going to happen.''
As for the RMA, the Cooper bill comes closest to what it seeks in health care legislation. ``But it's obvious we aren't going to have any of the bills left intact,'' Mr. Cole said.
Neither Mr. Cole nor Mr. Pantuso believed Congress would complete action on a health care bill in 1994. ``If they get anything, it will be bits and pieces-a small fraction of what they proposed,'' Mr. Pantuso said.
States will begin the process of implementing the auto emissions provisions of the 1991 Clean Air Act this year. Precisely how those provisions will be implemented is an issue of overriding concern for automotive service shop operators, including many tire dealers and retreaders.
At issue are the billions of dollars of auto emissions repair work that will come available as stricter, more sophisticated emissions testing causes more and more vehicles to fail.
``For the auto aftermarket, I can't imagine a bigger issue ever coming down the pike than who gets that business,'' Mr. Littlefield noted. The ARA and other concerned groups have been meeting with the EPA for months on this and related issues, he added.
One of the related issues is who will perform the testing. The Clean Air Act regulations promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency mandate centralized testing facilities, separate from the garages that perform the repairs.
``Some states will work very hard to avoid centralization,'' Mr. Wilson said. Many NTDRA members currently perform emissions tests, he added, but many may choose to opt out of it because the new ``IM240'' testing equipment required by the EPA is too expensive for many smaller dealerships.
In any case, it is highly unlikely the implementation regulations will be uniform from state to state, according to Mr. Wilson. ``What may work in California may not work in Iowa or Virginia,'' he said. ``Many areas in Virginia aren't under the stricter air standards, but Northern Virginia is.''
Emissions testing isn't the only clean air issue concerning auto repair shops. Many Northeastern states are poised to act on legislation that would require the distribution and sale of California-style low-emission vehicles (CAL LEVs).
Such mandated changes in automotive technology are a major concern to the aftermarket, according to Mr. Littlefield. But because 1994 is an election year-and promulgating CAL LEV will require enacting several new taxes-it is unlikely most states will pass a CAL LEV law this year, he said. ``But we'll be hit with this in 1995,'' he added.
Meanwhile, the aftermarket still worries about whether auto manufacturers will share with independent repair shops the technical information they need to repair emissions testing and onboard computer diagnostic equipment.
The EPA is scheduled to amend the Clean Air Act to require vehicle makers to share this data, but the amendment has been delayed, Mr. Redding said. ``We feel the Clean Air Act was very specific in saying the information should be made available to us.''
NHTSA: The RMA expects movement in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this year on establishing regulations for mandatory fuel-economy labeling of tires. ``They have to do it, because of the White House mandate,'' Mr. Cole said, referring to President Clinton's plan for reducing global warming. It is too early to comment until NHTSA makes a proposal, he added.
Highways: The ARA expects Congress in 1994 to consider supplementary highway legislation for $37 billion authorized but not appropriated by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.
Reopening highway funding issues also may reopen alternative methods of funding highway construction and maintenance, according to Mr. Littlefield. These might include reinstituting the federal excise tax on tread rubber and establishing a weight-distance tax for highway users, both of which retreaders oppose.
Product liability: Senate supporters of product liability reform legislation expect to obtain a floor vote early this year. No one in any branch of the tire industry, however, is sanguine about final passage of a tort reform bill this year.
Product liability reform in one form or another has been introduced in every Congress since 1981. ``Its chances have improved a slight bit every time, but are they good enough this time to put it over the top?'' Mr. Pantuso asked. ``It was two votes shy of passage in the last Congress.''
Even if Congress does pass the bill, it is by no means certain President Clinton will sign it, Mr. Cole added. ``Don't forget the trial lawyers (the sworn enemies of tort reform) supported Clinton in the election,'' he said.
The House companion to the Senate bill probably will languish in the House Judiciary Committee, because committee chairman Jack Brooks, D-Texas, is hostile to it, Mr. Wilson said. The NTDRA has several concerns about the current version of product liability reform, particularly the provision making product sellers liable if the product manufacturer is bankrupt or cannot be located.
OSHA: A number of powerful lawmakers-particularly Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. and William D. Ford, D-Mich.-are proceeding with legislation to reform the operations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The industry is leery of this effort, not only because of the additional workplace requirements it would entail, but also because of potentially stiff new civil and criminal penalties for employers who don't comply.
``We're very concerned about the broadening of OSHA regulations,'' Mr. Wilson said. ``Workplace accidents have actually dropped precipitously in this country; much of the current activity is due to the chicken plant fire in North Carolina (where 25 workers were killed). OSHA in the Johnson Administration was extremely harsh, and we fear it could be again.''
The RMA, however, believes OSHA reform will take a back seat to health care in 1994. ``The Clinton administration has made no specific commitment to OSHA reform,'' Mr. Pantuso said.
NAFTA: The industry expects little impact on its operations this year from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was approved late last year.
The Mexican tire maker Tornel is now a member of the RMA, and there is a lot of potential for cooperative projects through NAFTA, Mr. Cole said. But little will happen in the short term, he added.
Because of the removal of tariffs on retreaded tires, retreaders in the border states could ship their products to Mexico on a more even footing, according to Mr. Littlefield. ``It may not be a major issue, but along the border, it could help,'' he said.