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Group begins push for carbon tax initiative on November 2024 ballot

By Harrison Epstein - | Feb 12, 2023
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An inversion covers Northern Utah and makes visibility limited in downtown Ogden on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.
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From left, Clean the Darn Air volunteer Dennis Mullen, public health advocate Jan Kennington and policy analyst Yoram Bauman sit in the Provo City Library on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.
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The downtown area of Ogden, as seen from Malan's Peak, is buried under a blanket of smog from a temperature inversion in Ogden on Friday, Dec. 30, 2016.

As volunteers with Clean the Darn Air traverse the state, their argument is straightforward: Utah should institute a “modest” carbon tax on fossil fuels while splitting the return into local air quality programs and rural economies, expanding the state’s earned income tax credit match and eliminating the sales tax on food.

On Friday, volunteers with the organization came to the Provo City Library for a public hearing on the proposed initiative.

“We’re gonna put a measure on the ballot,” policy analyst Yoram Bauman said. “We’re a grassroots group of folks who care about clean air and climate issues and think we have a good policy to try to address that.”

Other gatherings were held the same day in Nephi, Price and Logan in an effort to hold hearings in Utah’s seven regions, as defined by the lieutenant governor’s office. Public hearings must be held before the group can begin gathering signatures.

To earn a spot on the ballot, volunteers also need to collect signatures from 8% of registered voters in Utah, approximately 150,000 people, while meeting minimum thresholds from 26 of the state’s 29 counties.

It’s also the second time Clean the Darn Air tried to get on the Utah ballot for a statewide initiative. In 2018, the group received only 30,000 of the required signatures by the November deadline.

“We know a lot more about the process, like we did a lot of learning by doing last time,” Bauman said. The group has 316 days from its first filing, on Jan. 10, to meet the required total. In 2018, they didn’t start gathering signatures until July, Bauman added, having waited for the legislative session to end.

While the group’s primary focus is in the name — cleaning the air — priorities vary for different volunteers. For Jan Kennington, a retired nurse practitioner, the air is her main goal. From her home at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Kennington can see haze over the Salt Lake Valley.

“I have a constant daily reminder that we’ve got an error,” she said.

The initiative comes as the Environmental Protection Agency considers stricter particle pollution standards and lowering the 24-hour monitoring standard. Division of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird told The Salt Lake Tribune that the monitoring standard change would make a greater impact on Utah because the state is “very close to exceeding” current benchmarks. Comment can be made to the EPA through its website.

To reach this stage of the initiative process, the group needed to have its initiative evaluated by the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst. Bauman promotes that the carbon tax would cut down on pollution and global climate change while allowing the state to reap benefits of increased taxes and, according to the office’s report, significant additional funds would come into state coffers compared to costs.

Johnathan Ball, legislative fiscal analyst, wrote that the initiative, if approved, would create ongoing costs of $170,000 from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality along with $449,000 from a Carbon Emissions Revenue Restricted Account created to manage the grant program, beginning in fiscal year 2027. The program would also create annual one-time costs from the Tax Commission to enact the new taxes.

Returns, though, would be significantly higher on a per year basis:

  • FY 2024: Cost approximately $162,000.
  • FY 2025: Cost approximately $182,000.
  • FY 2026: Cost approximately $388,000; generate approximately $243 million.
  • FY 2027: Cost approximately $11,000; generate approximately $569 million.
  • FY 2028: Generate approximately $611 million.

The revenue would go toward local clean air programs akin to ones promoted by then-Gov. Gary Herbert, ending the state sales tax on food, which has been a point of discussion for several years in the Utah Legislature — several bills to do in some form have been introduced in 2023 — and provide $50 million annually to stimulate rural economies.

Bauman said the money is for “parts of the state that are struggling economically,” while noting rural Utahns don’t necessarily deal with the same pollution-related issues as those in the Wasatch Front and Utah County. In the Uinta Basin, for example, the group highlights “ground-level” ozone problems. To a full house of 30 people in Nephi, though, the group faced opposition to its proposal.

“Partly because it was very well attended. Everybody just had two minutes (to speak) and so they kind of spent their two minutes sort of unloading,” Bauman said. “We didn’t have a chance to have a conversation.”

In Price, though, a handful of attendees including the city’s mayor and other elected officials came to discuss the impact carbon taxes would have on their local economies and businesses. Because the issue becomes personal, affecting people’s livelihoods, the activists sought to lessen concerns.

“I think they just think that maybe we’re ganging up on them a little bit,” said Dennis Mullen, a volunteer. “Climate change is something really we’re going to have to grapple with. They just didn’t like the way we were going about it necessarily.”

The risks placed on rural communities from a carbon tax are why Clean the Darn Air hopes to earmark part of the revenue for those communities, the group pointed out. While calling the $50 million “greatly disproportionate” to relative size, Bauman points out how much a coal plant closure would hurt the local economies.

The initiative has also been tweaked since its original introduction. Formerly, businesses would have had to pay the full carbon tax rate before applying for a refund. In the 2024 version, businesses would simply pay a reduced rate. The earned income tax credit would also grow in the existing policy — from a 10% nonrefundable match into a 20% refundable match — which would translate to significantly more money for working families.

While focus will continue on pollution, Utah’s inversion and climate change, the group will continue to spread its message with voters about the benefits across the board from its proposal.

“I think it’s important to recognize that 20 years from now a lot of us are going to be driving electric cars,” Bauman said. “But 20 years from now, we’re all still going to be eating grocery store food. People sort of focus on the carbon tax part of it, but in the long run this is going to be a tax cut for Utah families.”

The group has until mid-November to achieve the signature goal and plans to begin the gathering process in the next week. It has received endorsements from Conserve Southwest Utah, the Salt Lake City chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance while it is hoping to receive more now that the process is underway and the initiative’s language is finalized.

“We’re looking for all the friends we can get,” Bauman said.


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