Utah lawmakers have been pushing agencies to rely more and more on user fees instead of taxes. They say it’s only fair. But a bill backed by a Salt Lake City radioactive waste company would reverse that policy, shifting the cost of companies’ user fees to taxpayers.
EnergySolutions pays a special tax each year for the privilege of burying low-level radioactive waste in Utah’s West Desert, about 80 miles from Salt Lake City. Last year the tax meant over $11 million for schools, and the company paid oversight fees, too.
“What we are asking, and what this bill proposes, is to take $1.7 million from the General Fund to fund this portion of the oversight program.
In other words, EnergySolutions would pay $1.7 million less in fees, and lawmakers would cover oversight — mostly with sales-tax dollars — under HB169.
State regulators initially had concerns about the switch. What if lawmakers didn’t appropriate enough money to pay for inspecting and regulating the site? Or spent the money instead on drug treatment, universities or something else besides EnergySolutions oversight?
The company has agreed to make up any shortages, but that still means a big policy change.
“The question of: ‘Should the regulated entity pay the oversight regulatory fee or should that be transferred to the general fund?’ is a policy question that you will decide upon," said Scott Anderson, who leads the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control and testified before a House committee recently. "Our concern is that we have adequate funds to manage this program.”
Scott Williams is executive director of HEAL Utah, an environmental group that opposes taxpayers covering the costs for what he calls a “high-risk industry.” He calls the legislation precedent setting.
“You can sort of anticipate all the others lining up — especially those that aren't nearly as deep pockets as EnergySolutions. And the whole system starts to unravel.”
The House passed the bill Monday, 61 to 11, after supporters praised EnergySolutions as a good corporate citizen that deserves a break. All of the ‘no’ votes were cast by Democrats.
The bill heads next to the Senate.