Draft NC budget would make yearly car inspections easier — except in Mecklenburg County

The N.C. General Assembly’s draft budget contains a change to the state’s vehicle inspection process that would benefit car owners in several counties — but not Mecklenburg County drivers.

The budget draft, obtained by the Raleigh News & Observer, includes a provision to remove the state’s vehicle emissions test requirement for 18 of the 19 North Carolina counties where it currently applies. Under the proposed change, Mecklenburg County would be the only one left with the requirement.

Counties that would have their requirement lifted under the proposal include Iredell, Union, Durham and Wake.

The budget draft isn’t final, Speaker Tim Moore told reporters Tuesday. The North Carolina House could vote on the budget as soon as Wednesday.

The new draft also isn’t the first time the idea has been floated. The same proposal was part of a budget proposal released in April, the Charlotte Observer reported previously. And a similar bill was introduced in the state Senate during the 2023 legislative session.

But the new budget draft is significant because it emerged late Monday after months of negotiating between leaders in both chambers.

Why would emissions tests still be required in Charlotte?

State Sen. Steve Jarvis, one of the sponsors of the Senate bill, said previously he wanted the requirement repealed for most counties because most now have air quality that falls within the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable standards.

“This is something that’ll be a major benefit to our lower-income tier of the entire state,” the Davie and Davidson County Republican told the Winston-Salem Journal. “They’re hit the hardest by the emissions testing when a lot of times a (indicator) light will come on and they’ll have to spend $500, $1,000 for issues that are usually just sensors. The car’s not doing anything bad. It’s just a sensor that’s bad.”

Mecklenburg is the one county of those with a requirement that hasn’t brought down its air pollution to safe levels, Jarvis told the Journal.

The budget proposal calls for vehicles “with a model year within 20 years of the current year and earlier than the 2017 model year” to be subject to the emissions test requirement. Currently, vehicles that are “20 years old or older” are exempt.

Safety inspections would still be mandatory for most North Carolina vehicle owners even if the emissions test requirement is repealed.

Vehicles less than 30 years old have to be inspected annually and “must be completed within 90 days” of renewing your registration, the N.C. Department of Transportation says. Safety inspections must be done by a licensed mechanic and “examine a vehicle’s headlights, signals, brakes, steering, windows and tires.”

What are the chances of NC budget passing?

Moore said Tuesday the North Carolina House will take the first of two votes on the state budget and a separate bill tying Medicaid expansion to the authorization of four new casinos Wednesday, unless something derails negotiations.

“The negotiations are still continuing, right? It’s a matter of also trying to ensure there are votes for a plan, so there’s some flexibility to see what we need to do,” he told reporters. “But absent something, absent there being a change in the circumstances, the plan right now is to vote on both bills Wednesday, and to vote on both bills on Thursday.”

The budget is already two and a half months late.

State legislators didn’t vote on a budget last week amid disagreements over legalizing non-tribal casinos and other gambling expansions in the budget, the News & Observer reported.

When would vehicle inspection changes take effect?

Changes to the state’s emissions test requirement wouldn’t take effect immediately if and when the budget passes.

The state Department of Environmental Quality would have a year to send “a proposed North Carolina State Implementation Plan amendment” to the EPA addressing the change and its impact.

The EPA would then have to approve the amendment.

The last time the state legislature changed emissions test requirements, in 2017, it took until 2019 for the change to get EPA approval and take effect.