Environmental Politics, Think
Utah’s 2020 legislative session
Like every year, the 45 days that make up the annual Utah legislative session come and go in a blink of an eye. Lawmakers passed 510 bills this year and approved a $20 billion state budget. There were some wins, a few disappointments, and many cups of coffee and cans of soda to keep everyone awake all session long.
Even with the state’s $20 billion budget, bills that required funding had to fight tooth and nail this year. After the rollercoaster tax reform process, legislators were stringent with the state’s wallet. The biggest area environmental advocates saw this hit was in air quality. In 2019, the legislature gave almost $29 million to air quality programs. This year, about $10 million was given to air quality.
However, Representative Lowry Snow’s HB396 Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure, which passed with flying colors, approved a public-private partnership that includes a $50 million investment by Rocky Mountain Power for the statewide electric vehicle infrastructure.
Electric vehicle wins didn’t stop there: Representative Cory Maloy’s HB180 Emission Inspection Revisions exempts electric vehicles from emissions compliance fees; Representative Robert Spendlove’s HB259 requires the Department of Transportation to lead in the creation of a long term, statewide electric vehicle charging network plan; and Representative Carl Albrecht’s appropriation for Rural Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure was fully funded with $2 million in one-time funding to provide matching grants to electric vehicle charging infrastructure across rural Utah, including along highways and in national and state parks.
Another cause for celebration by advocates this year is, surprisingly, over radioactive waste.
Representative Casey Snider’s HB233 Natural Resources Legacy Funding Amendments creates a board focused on open spaces, habitat and species. Originally, HB233 funded this board by a tax on depleted uranium—a type of radioactive waste that becomes more radioactive over time and that is not currently allowed in Utah. Advocates were concerned that funding this board with such a tax was preemptive earmarking and could put pressure on regulators and lawmakers to bring this waste in. But once this bill failed in committee, Representative Snider changed the funding source to just appropriations and federal grants, meaning that all of the depleted uranium language was taken completely out of this bill!
- The bad
Unfortunately, there are always some bad bills that bulldoze or sneak their way through. The biggest blow this year was Senator Ralph Okerlund’s SB239 Refinery Sales Tax Exemption.
SB239 extends a tax exemption for refineries. On the surface, this sounds like a simple bill and a standard practice. However, this particular exemption was given to refineries in 2017 to help them start producing Tier 3 fuel—a cleaner type of fuel—and was set to expire in 2021 unless a refinery began producing Tier 3 fuel. Three out of Utah’s five refineries began producing Tier 3 during that time frame.
Then this year, the last two refineries, Big West and its owner FJ Management, decided that they wanted to benefit from this exemption for longer, even though they weren’t producing Tier 3 fuel at all, nor had they even started the process to do so, and reportedly hadn’t been using the tax exemption yet. Essentially, they wanted the state of Utah to reward them for doing nothing to benefit our air.
SB239 originally extended the exemption from 2021 to 2024, a timeline that faced push back from advocates and legislators on both sides of the aisle. Around 11:30pm on the last day of the session, SB239 was suddenly substituted and passed. This substitute extends the exemption for only 18 months, rather than three-and-a-half years. It’s good that this bill shortened the original extension but not good that it still uses taxpayer dollars to reward industry for bad behavior.
So, what happens next?
The Governor must now either sign all of these bills into law, veto them, or do nothing and allow them to automatically become law in 60 days.
The legislative session is the only time that state laws are made, unless the Governor calls a special session, and our legislators are all part time, which means that once the session is over, they go back to their regular lives.
However, legislators still come together once a month from May to November, excluding July, for interim session to discuss current issues, study bills and debate potential legislation for next year.
Interim session is typically open to the public. However, because of COVID-19, the Capitol is closed through June. Look for updates:
If you want to get more involved with Utah’s legislative process, now is a great time to start building a relationship with your legislators. Reach out to them to thank them for all of their hard work during the 2020 session (because they do work incredibly hard!). By building a personal relationship with your legislator, even from afar, you become a reliable resource for legislators to represent your community!
Grace Olscamp is HEAL Utah’s communications and outreach associate, and a former editor at the online publication Outdoor Women’s Alliance.