WASHINGTON—1997 will be a year of modest legislative and regulatory achievements in the tire and auto service industries, according to Washington spokesmen for these businesses. With the same political makeup as in 1996—a Democratic White House, a Republican Congress, with a slightly stronger GOP majority in the Senate but a more fragile lead in the House—1997 will not be the year for manufacturing or small business to seek major gains in the realms of taxation, the environment or regulatory reform, experts agreed.
But opportunities still exist for allied industries to make their influence felt in the coming year.
``The name of the game is the great vast middle,'' said David Poisson, executive vice president of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association. ``That's where the game will be played because of the sentiments of the public, and the greatest opportunities are for those who approach everything in bipartisan fashion.''
Following is the prognosis for some of the major issues facing tire manufacturers, tire dealers and retreaders in 1997.
The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal for a new National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone and particulate matter will be the major environmental issue in 1997.
Representatives of U.S. manufacturers, as well as spokesmen for the trucking and auto industries, have denounced the EPA plan as scientifically unjustified and prohibitively expensive.
The EPA proposal to reduce allowable ozone levels from .12 to .08 parts per million parts of air will put 335 counties in non-attainment with Clean Air standards, triple the current number, noted Roy E. Littlefield III, government relations director for the International Tire and Rubber Association.
``This will affect everything from reformulated gas to vehicle inspection/maintenance programs'' by making them far more widespread, Mr. Littlefield said.
The EPA also wants to reduce allowable particulate sizes in ambient air from 10 to 2.5 microns in diameter. This could have a severe impact on the formulation of diesel fuel, the most important fuel for truckers, according to Mr. Littlefield.
``The cost to the trucking industry alone could be enormous if diesel is reformulated,'' he said.
The NTDRA is still determining the possible impact of the EPA plan, according to Donald T. Wilson, NTDRA director of government affairs. ``The potential impact for us that I see right off is in particulates,'' Mr. Wilson said. ``There may be an issue with buffing dust for retreaders.''
For auto repairers, the EPA plan could mean a dramatic upswing in business, according to Robert L. Redding, Washington representative for the Automotive Service Association.
``If this doesn't turn into another controversy over centralized vs. decentralized emissions inspections, this will benefit most Americans,'' Mr. Redding said. ``From a small-business perspective, it puts repairs back in the (independent) shops.''
Reauthorization of the five-year, $125 billion Intermodal Surface Transpor-tation Efficiency Act is as close to a sure bet as any pending legislation in the 105th Congress.
ISTEA reauthorization means continued funding for transportation projects, an uncontroversial proposition in Washington. But some industry spokesmen are concerned about individual provisions that may turn up in the new bill.
Tire dealers and retreaders, for example, worry over the possibilityof a weight-distance tax on highway freight carriers. This tax structure, long sought by the railroad industry, would raise taxes substantially on trucks.
There also are numerous proposals to redirect a portion of highway taxes toward railways and mass transit. ``Historically, highway users have always expected highway taxes and fees to be spent on highways, rather than bike paths and Metro systems,'' Mr. Wilson said.
Reinstating the federal excise tax on passenger tires is another possibility in ISTEA, he added.
One provision an ISTEA reauthorization bill won't contain is a provision mandating the use of rubberized asphalt in federally funded highway projects. Conventional asphalt makers and state highway officials fought that mandate in the first ISTEA to a standstill, and finally succeeded in killing it.
``An asphalt rubber mandate is not particularly viable right now,'' Mr. Wilson said. ``There is still money for state demonstration projects in asphalt rubber, and there may be a bipartisan effort to continue those.''
Superfund is a textbook example of a law passed in haste and repented at leisure. Everyone on all sides agrees the current law is flawed beyond redemption, but no one agrees on how to change it.
The deadlock between Republican reformers and the Clinton administration, which would not approve repeal of retroactive liability in 1996, is likely to continue this year, sources said.
``We're in a real box as far as Superfund is concerned,'' Mr. Littlefield said.
``I think you will see (House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas) Bliley and the Republicans realize they have to tone down their proposals,'' Mr. Wilson added.
``While we feel strongly about retroactive liability, its repeal is not a possibility with the makeup of the current Congress,'' he said. ``We will see some strides made, but not everything we want.''
Congress passed a product liability reform bill in 1996, an historic first. But the bill was shot down by a Clinton veto Congress couldn't override.
``That's a bill you try to get through Congress, knowing the President will probably veto it again,'' Mr. Littlefield said.
``It has about the same odds (of passage) as last year, and if you get a veto, you probably won't be able to override it,'' Mr. Redding said.
Recently the American Trucking Associations published a report denouncing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's draft ergonomics standard. That proposal, the ATA said, will cost the nation's trucking fleets at least $6.5 billion annually to implement.
There is no timetable for issuance of the ergonomics standard, and the rubber industry has paid only moderate attention to the issue. ``But if it's that important to the ATA, we'll get involved, because the trucking industry is our biggest customer,'' Mr. Littlefield said.
The ergonomics issue touches on the larger issue of OSHA reform—a topic dear to the heart of business, particularly small business.
So far, the likelihood of an OSHA reform package in the 105th Congress seems doubtful. Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., introduced a sweeping OSHA bill in the 104th Congress; he plans to hold hearings on OSHA operations early in 1997, but said he will not sponsor a new bill.
Nevertheless, there are signs the agency is trying to become more cooperative and less adversarial with small businesses, according to Messrs. Poisson and Redding.
For example, in some states small businesses can call OSHA and request that an inspector visit on a non-citation basis. Without penalizing the business owner, the inspector will tell him which operations must be changed to bring the shop into compliance with agency regulations.
``Most tire dealers recognize that compliance with OSHA regulations is good business,'' Mr. Poisson said. ``What customer wants to go into a facility with tools strewn about and used oil spilled on the floor?''
President Clinton signed a small-business tax relief law as a partial giveback for the increase in the minimum wage. This tax bill included an increase in the expensing provisions for new equipment purchases, as well as a partial tax write-off of first-year wages of new hirees from various underprivileged groups.
This leaves a number of tax issues important to business, such as a reduction in the capital gains tax and estate tax reform. But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R- Texas, reportedly does not plan to move any tax legislation in 1997.
One of the major crises facing independent auto repair shops, according to Messrs. Redding and Poisson, is the dearth of automotive technicians trained to repair modern, high-tech cars. This is an area both men would like to see the government become involved in, if only to help fund private training efforts in this field.
One problem, according to Mr. Redding, is that there are too many private groups devoted to auto technician training, and they are getting in each other's way.
``We've joined every group on the table, but we don't see any organization or coordination among them,'' he said.
Auto repair has an unfairly bad reputation among students with the math, reading and computer skills to repair today's cars, Mr. Redding said. ``We've got to tell kids that auto technicians are not `grease monkeys,' but skilled professionals earning $20,000-30,000 a year to start,'' he said.
Mr. Poisson praised the efforts of tire dealers in several states to train young auto technicians in cooperative efforts through local community colleges.
``The federal government has more than 160 training programs through various agencies, none of which is particularly successful,'' he said. ``We can incubate our own programs, but government must come up with the seed money through grants.''