ST. PAUL — A Minnesota Senate committee on Thursday, March 5, debated a bill that would curb state regulators' ability to set stricter motor vehicle emission regulations.

Supporters of the bill say the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency overstepped its bounds by moving to adopt emission standards currently used in California. Those standards, which make up the agency's "Clean Cars Minnesota" program, would tighten the greenhouse gas emission requirements for new vehicles sold in the state.

Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milica, the bill's prime sponsor, told members of the Senate Committee on State Government Finance, Policy and Elections on Thursday that the proposal for the program is too broad, and that it exceeds the scope of powers granted to the agency by law.

"This rule-making has ended up being more of ‘One California’ than it has ‘One Minnesota,'" Mathews said, name-checking the theme of Gov. Tim Walz's campaign.

Committee members ultimately approved the bill, Senate File 3496, by a vote of 6-4.

Republican senators were adamant, however, that they did not oppose more stringent emission standards. But if they are to be adopted, they said, it should be through the legislative process.

MPCA assistant commissioner Craig McDonnell disagreed. In his testimony Thursday, he said the agency was well within its right to propose the regulations and defended its handling of the them as open and transparent.

The bill, he said, "prevents Minnesota from doing what's best for Minnesota."

Still, McDonnell said after the committee meeting that the proposed legislation has not derailed the agency's timeline for implementing the regulations. The soonest they could go into effect would be in 2023.

The MPCA also still plans to publish an official notice of its intent to adopt the regulations this month, and would then allow members of the public to comment on it in writing or at open hearings. Public meetings were held in late 2019 as well.

A number of state environmental organizations wrote to the Senate committee on Thursday to voice their approval of the Clean Cars program. Lending its support, too, was electric car maker Tesla, which also submitted a letter.

Opposed to the program, though, is the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association. Scott Lambert, the president of the trade group, said by phone on Thursday the program threatens to raise car prices and burden car lots with excess product.

In an effort to hasten the switch to electric and hybrid vehicles, the program calls on manufacturers to deliver a set number of them to sell in Minnesota each year. A manufacturer credit program would be created to achieve that goal, though details for one have yet to be worked out.

But because the demand for electric cars in Minnesota is so minimal, Lambert said, many would likely go unsold. What would be better, he said, would be for states to offer consumers a tax credit for purchasing electric cars.

"Greater supply of electric vehicles doesn’t create greater demand," he said.

Controversial, too, is the lack of wiggle room afforded to states that adopt such regulations. Because of the way the federal Clean Air Act is structured, the strictest standards that states can adopt other than the federal government's are those used in California.

That means the program, if adopted in Minnesota, would have to follow California's version to the letter. Eleven other states have adopted programs modeled on California's so far.

State regulators have argued that the program has the potential not only to reduce pollution but to benefit the health of Minnesotans. In a 2019 report, the state Department of Health found that ground-level pollution contributed to the deaths of between 2,000 and 4,000 people in 2013.