I’m trying very hard to feel good about what happened in the Legislature regarding air quality this session. After all, eight bills designed to reduce emissions passed into law—seven more than last year. In an era where it’s hard to find bipartisan support for anything, legislators on both sides of the aisle voted for—and funded—these bills. And when the dust cleared, $4.6 million was approved in new air quality spending, including much-needed dollars for the underfunded Department of Air Quality.
So we should be happy, right? It’s more complicated. Roughly 25 proposals were on the table this session (this plethora counts as a plus), which means almost two-thirds were tabled without a vote, failed in committee, or defeated on the floor of the House or Senate. Of the eight that passed, several had the teeth yanked right out of them through amendments. And, perhaps the greatest disappointment, two of the most important air quality bills failed on the last day of the session.
First the bad news
HB388 (J Anderson, Briscoe) seemed like a no-brainer. This bipartisan bill would have allowed Utah’s cities and counties to ask voters to approve a sales tax hike of 0.25% (one thin dime per $40) to raise money for more frequent and convenient bus service, as well as more bike routes. This bill would have cost the state nothing and didn’t even require the tax hike—only that it would appear on a ballot. And, with a potential revenue boost of up to $91.5 million for Utah Transit Authority and other transportation agencies, it would have gone a long way toward solving one of the biggest barriers to getting out of our cars: buses with infrequent schedules and awkward connections to one another and to TRAX. But alas, although HB388 passed the House and had the support of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake Chamber and multiple clean-air groups, the Senate failed to even bring it to a vote.
The other major disappointment was the effort by several lawmakers to overturn or modify a bizarre state law that forbids air quality regulators from making air quality rules more stringent than the Environmental Protection Agency’s. Removing that hurdle would allow Utah regulators the flexibility to address the Wasatch Front’s unique temperature inversions and the pollution they trap.
SB 164, sponsored by Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, was intended to repeal the 1989 statute; the bill failed in the Senate by one vote. But all was not lost—yet. The more moderate HB 121, sponsored by Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, would have amended the 1989 statute to allow stricter rules that are deemed “reasonable.” This way-better-than-nothing bill was poised for success until the Senate Natural Resources Committee changed the language to “provide evidence-based protections.” Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, reacted strongly to the change, arguing that it mortally weakened the bill, and, in a surprising move, joined two conservative Republicans in voting against it. The bill died in committee on a 3-3 vote.
But Edwards, HB 121’s sponsor, was not done. She teamed up with Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross; Weiler, believing the bill deserved consideration by the full Senate, made a motion to suspend the rules and bring the bill to the floor. A good effort, but the Senate did not agree, and the bill passed into history—at least for this year.
A final disappointment occurred when lawmakers did not follow up on Governor Herbert’s State of the State speech suggestion that Utah work to quickly endorse cleaner fuel standards adopted by the EPA. Adopting Tier 3 gasoline standards ahead of the 2019 EPA mandate would go a long way toward cleaning up our air, but the Legislature failed to take this up. State officials are currently hard at work looking for other ways to get the cleaner gas here ASAP, so keep your fingers crossed.
Then the good
But let’s move on to what worked. Actual money was allocated for real programs, from cutting wood smoke to eliminating smog-belching cars to supporting electric vehicles to hiring new state positions dedicated to clearing the air. Here’s what the new bills look like:
• HB 154 (Arent, Redd, Nielson): Funds a voluntary conversion to cleaner fuels for homes with wood burning as their sole source of heat, and funds an education program on the effects wood burning has on air quality. However, amendments stripped the bill’s enforcement provisions and cut its funding.
• HB 38 (Arent): Created a State Resource Stewardship Coordinator to promote the adoption of clean air policies and share best practices among state agencies. Because the state is Utah’s largest employer, this bill is more impressive than it may sound.
• HB 74 (Snow): Upped the state tax credit for the purchase of electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and new CNGs and conversions to $1,500. And a bill that would have forced alternative-fuel vehicles to pay higher annual registration fees (touted by its sponsor as a companion bill to HB74) failed.
• HB 19 (Arent): Facilitates the infrastructure for electric vehicle charging stations. Fixes a glitch in a previous regulation.
• SB 99 (Jenkins): Requires the state to have 50% or more alternative-fuel or highly efficient motor vehicles by August 30, 2018. Great!
• HB 61 (Arent): Establishes clean air programs and amends existing ones: Modifies a current clean vehicle program to include electric-hybrid cars and grants for alternative refueling infrastructure; and creates a fund to help small businesses and individuals reduce air emissions from malfunctioning, old or dirty equipment (e.g. snow and leaf blowers, lawnmowers) through grants, exchanges, and low-cost purchase programs. But the $200,000 fund is one-time money.
• HB 31 (Wilcox): Exempts private industries’ pollution control devices from sales tax. Whatever it takes.
• SB 196 (Weiler): Prohibits the Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste from approving an operation plan or permitting a facility that incinerates infectious waste or chemotherapeutic agents within a two-mile radius of a residential area and is not in operation as of May 13, 2014.
The Legislature also funded air quality research, four new employees and equipment for the Division of Air Quality, and a continued campaign for public awareness of air quality issues.
Do not be discouraged! The legislature took huge steps forward this year, and we can’t expect the whole culture to change overnight. And be proud of yourselves—momentum is building across the Wasatch Front for change, evidenced by the nearly 5,000 people who showed up for January’s clean air rally, and the more than 20,000 pro-clean air messages that were sent to Utah legislators during the session. This public outcry encouraged more than a dozen legislators from both parties to make clean air a priority.
What is critically important is that we don’t stop now. This is a year-round effort—don’t forget that even though our lovely, breezy late winter kept inversions at bay, this can change overnight. And with warmer weather headed our way, keep in mind the dangers of ozone, which frequently rises to unhealthy levels in summer. You can’t see or smell it, but it is every bit as bad for you as PM2.5.
Keep the pressure on the Air Quality Board, the Division of Air Quality, the Clean Air Action Committee, Governor Herbert, and even the EPA. Let them know how important clean air is to our health, our enjoyment of life, and our economy. This session proved that lawmakers are listening.
So keep talking.