OPINION: A few loud vehicles might mean inspections for everyone

Feb. 7—Santa Fe's east-side liberals did the impossible. Through their support for citywide inspections to silence noisy vehicles, they created an alliance between two politicians who never agree on anything.

Sen. Craig Brandt, staunch conservative from Rio Rancho, and Sen. Linda Lopez, proud progressive from Albuquerque, don't believe charging the masses more money through an inspection program is the best way to shut down noise pollution caused by a small number of drivers.

Brandt and Lopez are looking out for the law-abiding little guy, the hardworking single mom, the nearly broke college student and anyone else who can't afford more government bureaucracy.

Lopez and Brandt oppose Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. On a recent day, Wirth and his expert witness, Santa Fe City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, sat elbow to elbow to promote the measure.

The Wirths are married to one another, but they did not publicly mention their status when pitching the bill to the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee. The assumption was everyone knew the Wirths are a power couple from the wealthy part of Santa Fe.

Sen. Wirth's bill would apply to local governments in New Mexico's five most populous counties: Santa Fe, Bernalillo, Doña Ana, Sandoval and San Juan. Those counties, or cities within those counties, would be empowered to enact noise or safety inspections of all vehicles.

Any vehicle that did not pass inspection would be denied registration by the state. The Wirths say their approach might force owners of the loudest vehicles to install mufflers.

"We're getting a lot of complaints from downtown merchants, hotel owners and tourists even," Romero-Wirth said. "And this is not just in our downtown area but across the city, where people are suffering from very loud vehicle noise."

Though the councilor said countless cities are afflicted by noise pollution from vehicles, only a contingent from Santa Fe testified for her husband's bill.

A woman who said she lives a half-mile from the state Capitol told of vehicle noise so persistent and painful she's considered moving.

Freshman Santa Fe County Commissioner Justin Greene spoke in favor of the bill. He liked the option that would let county government decide if it wants to create an inspection system.

The Santa Fe City Council voted last month to quadruple fines for drivers whose vehicles exceed noise ordinances. But increasing the penalty for first offenders from $25 to $100 is not a solution, said Councilor Signe Lindell.

Lindell, though, couldn't quite make up her mind about whether these lawbreaking drivers and their earsplitting vehicles are a matter serious enough for police to be involved.

"It's a health and safety issue," Lindell said before she wobbled down a different path. "I would also say that, by allowing us to have this type of inspection, it would not put the enforcement of this onto police and our first responders, so they can be spending their time on issues that are more critical than the muffler issue."

No part of city government is better suited than the police department to stopping drivers whose modified mufflers endanger others with noise, smoke and fumes.

As for Santa Fe's city administration, it can't handle the most fundamental parts of its job. Mayor Alan Webber, the eight councilors and the finance staff have missed by years deadlines to complete mandatory audits.

As for the county commissioners, they maneuvered in secret to hire a county manager only 45 minutes after the previous one announced her retirement. The commissioners disregarded the public interest by wiring the job for one person instead of conducting a legitimate search.

I detest thunderous noise from cars and trucks as much as any opinionated resident of Santa Fe. I also wonder why anyone would trust the city or county governments to expand their authority over another part of people's lives.

Sen. Brandt offered similar objections to Wirth's bill.

"Because of a few bad apples, you're raising the expense of every person that lives in Santa Fe — poor, rich, doesn't matter," Brandt said. "Instead of dealing with the people individually that are actually causing the problem, we're again putting another fee on every citizen."

Sen. Lopez, who represents Albuquerque's South Valley, also opposed the bill on economic grounds.

"When it says vehicle noise or safety inspections, of course the table is open for [local governments] to decide," Lopez said. "If they choose to do both, I really think it's a burden on certain communities in the state. It will be a burden on my community."

The talking ended, and Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee began voting on a motion to advance Wirth's bill with a positive recommendation.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, balked midway through the roll-call vote. She instead proposed sending the measure to the Judiciary Committee without any recommendation at all.

Kernan got her way in a 7-2 vote. Lopez and Brandt stayed strong and dissented.

If I ever get around to writing profiles in courage of state senators, there's one certainty. It will be a thin volume.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.