Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
A sign shows prices for mandated vehicle tests at J\\\\&A Auto Emissions in Provo. Owner Jose Guerra says Utah County prices range from $20 to $30 for emissions.

Free market forces could no longer drive the price of emissions tests in Salt Lake and Utah counties if a proposed $25 cap is approved by the Legislature.

The cap, which is part of HB196, would effectively remove the prerogative of shop owners to charge any fee for the test in the two counties, ensuring that everyone who is required to take the test will pay the same amount, said sponsor Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan. The cap is designed to restore the original intent of setting a fee to cover the costs of the tests and equipment for stations.

"All I'm doing is putting it back to where it was before, so everybody is operating under the same fee system," Harper said. "This way, every taxpayer knows they're being treated the same."

The bill would also eliminate the ability of counties to incrementally increase the fee by $2.50 a year to reimburse stations for lost revenue because of a change to state law, made last year, that required cars five years old and newer to only tested every other year.

Currently, both Salt Lake and Utah counties do not regulate the fees, choosing instead to allow the free market system to determine the price. While Harper said he favors unregulated pricing when it's possible, it can never be considered free market when it is required by the government.

"How do you have a free market system what it is something that is federally and state mandated? It doesn't breed a free market if it's mandated," he said.

Salt Lake County Councilman Russell Skousen, however, said that the unregulated price structure has already worked in two counties, and should be allowed to continue. In August, the Salt Lake County Council removed any caps on the test fee, modeling their approach to Utah County, which already had unregulated prices.

"You either trust the free market or you don't," Skousen said. "In Utah County, for years they've gone with the free market and never had a problem."

Prices in Utah County hover between $20 and $30, primarily because customers will not pay much more, Provo's J&A Emissions owner Jose Guerra said.

"You've got to compete," he said. "If I charged $100, nobody would come here."

Michael Duncan, co-owner of Midvale-based Just Emissions, said that his shops are proof that the free market system is working in Salt Lake County where prices, since becoming unregulated, range from the $17 to $35. Even though his shops charge one of the higher fees in the county, customers still come because they prefer a shop that is only emissions and safety inspections, he said.

"You can get any price you want," he said. "We can take of our business, and we know how to run it. They just need to stay the hell out of it."

During the Salt Lake County Council debates, both Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Valley, and Sen. Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful, spoke in favor of letting the owners set the prices, allies that Duncan hopes to recruit if the bill reaches the Senate. Buttars doubted that it would get through the Senate, and said that the system is working just fine.

"I'm totally in favor of the free market," he said. "I'd like him to show me one place where it's not working."