As Utahns persist through one of the worst winter inversion seasons in a decade, many have focused their frustration and anger over dirty air on elected officials in the Utah legislature. In part two of our series Clearing the Air, KUER News explores the short and long term solutions lawmakers are proposing.
On a clear day, the view from the steps of the Utah state Capitol can be a stunning picture of the Salt Lake Valley, but during the nearly two dozen red air quality days, filthy air enveloped the historic marble building and the cries for action inside the Capitol grew louder.
Protests in the Rotunda have became a frequent site. Everyone from Utah Mom’s for Clean Air to Mormons For Environmental Stewardship called for lawmakers take action on cleaning up the air.The Utah doctors converged on the Capitol declaring a health emergency with a petition signed by more than one hundred health care professionals. While both Republicans and Democrats mentioned air quality as a priority, the session began without any filed legislation on the issue. But as public pressure mounted, members of the Democratic minority in the Utah House were the first to introduce a plan in week three of the session.
“The bills that we’re going to present today are ideas that have come in part from the research and advocacy of many people in our community and in state government.”
Democrat Patrice Arent represents Millcreek. She and four other Democratic lawmakers are proposing up to six bills they hope will move the state in the right direction. Their plan includes requiring state agencies to reduce activities that cause pollution and compel industry to use the best available equipment to scrub emissions from the air. Arent is concerned this year’s inversions have already had a negative effect on Utah’s economy.
“I flew in January with a plane full of people going to the Outdoor Retailers and to Sundance and they weren’t too happy with what they were seeing. So this affects our economy, it certainly affects health care costs. I don’t think we can afford not to do this. We’ve got to make efforts. Will we solve all the problems? No. Is there an easy solution? Absolutely not, but we need to be doing everything we can to clean up our air,” said Arent.
Also included is legislation to provide income tax credits for those who purchase UTA passes and subsidize free transit passes in the months of January and July. Representative Joel Briscoe of Salt Lake is sponsoring the transportation bills in the package. He’s still working with legislative research and the UTA to pinpoint exactly how much the subsidies and tax breaks would cost, but he says increasing mass transit ridership would help reduce the tailpipe emissions responsible for more than half of Utah’s particulate pollution problem.
“Even if the legislature were to appropriate enough money to try it once. Or air is so bad. It’s having an impact on our health care costs and the ability of people to bring and retain workers and expand businesses that for the sake of good business and for the sake of good health, we should give it a try,” said Briscoe.
But Briscoe, Arent and the rest of the Minority Democratic caucus have to convince a Republican super-majority that their bills are worth passing. Representative Brad Dee is the Republican House Majority Leader. He says his party is more focused on what he calls long-term solutions to the air quality problem.
“We need to get more proactive with the one contributor that’s about sixty percent of our pollutants in this valley. And there’s no question what it is – we all understand what it is and its private vehicles. So we either got to get a better education program about driving less and being smarter with our transit or we’ve got to provide alternatives,” said Dee.
So far, two Republicans, Representatives Jack Draxler and Lowry Snowe are sponsoring bills that would extend and strengthen tax credits for those who operate clean fuel vehicles. Majority Leader Dee believes cleaner fuels; especially the use of compressed natural gas or CNG, is a solution because it would reduce air pollution while at the same time providing larger economic opportunities in Utah.
“Now we create an infrastructure system across the state, localized maybe on the I-15 corridor that provides the ability to fuel those vehicles throughout the state of Utah and also provides the gas to fuel them with,” said Dee.
Dee says Republicans in the House and Senate will introduce a package of bills to build more CNG filling stations about ten days before the session is scheduled to end on March 15. But will that be enough time for all the bills on air quality offered by both parties to get votes in both chambers? House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart says leadership can step in.
“As we come towards the end of the session, it’s normal practice for us to re-prioritize. To take all of the bills off the calendar and look at what are the important issues we have to get done and we will reorder some of those bills to make sure that we address those issues before the session ends,” said Lockhart.
The other factor looming in the bad air debate at the Capitol is a proposed budget cut of more than two hundred thousand dollars to the Department of Environmental Quality. As part of a consolidation, the cuts would eliminate several positions including one in the Division of Air Quality. Republican Senator Lyle Hillyard is a co-chair of the Executive Appropriations Committee. He says next week the budget writing process begins that could determine whether the DEQ will be cut.
“So when we sit down with them we’re going to say, you’re going to have this much money, you’re going to have this much cuts and then we’ll talk through how best to implement that. And so if they have reallocations within their budget that make sense, I’ll support that,” said Hillyard.
When asked this week if he would support a budget that would eliminate a position in the Division of Air Quality, Governor Gary Herbert wouldn’t offer a clear answer.
“It’s hard for me to say whether this position is going to be critical or not. Could we use more money, more personnel? Probably so. What we need is better meteorology at the end of the day. Last year we had one exceedence of PM 2.5. This year we’ve had 20 and it’s all because of meteorology, not because of anything else. So maybe get me a better weatherman,” said Governor Herbert.
Despite the current efforts in the works, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they will continue to bring more attention to air quality issues in the state, even after the 45 day session for the year has ended.