SALT LAKE CITY — An effort on Utah's Capitol Hill to raise revenue for air quality programs is being met by strong criticism from watchdogs, who say the bill sets a dangerous precedent.
SB243 requires utilities to add up to a $1 charge on their bills per month, with the money ultimately going toward air quality development and education programs.
Consumer advocate Claire Geddes said the charge adds up to a tax that could bring well over $20 million annually to state coffers.
"It's a hidden tax," Geddes said. "It's back-door funding. And once they start this, we don't know where it will ever end."
Geddes said in states where policy initiatives have been included in utility rates, customers end up paying up to double on their bills. She said the same could happen in Utah, with this measure initially opening the door to "adders" for other interests.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the measure gives utility customers an "opt-out" and considers the $1 charge a "donation."
"What this bill does is allow people to donate," Adams said. "It doesn't require them. There's an opt-out. So you can actually decide whether you want to donate or not."
Geddes called the tax "regressive," since the $1 monthly charge would be more likely to impact a lower-income utility customer. Adams disputed that.
"They don't have the capacity - they can opt out," he said. "It's simply a way to let the public participate, because we're all part of the problem."
Under the bill, an interlocal entity governed by a board of state officials, lawmakers, municipal leaders and representatives from the electricity, natural gas and petroleum industries would distribute the money toward efforts that benefit air quality, with a large share of the money focused on alternative fuel vehicles.
Geddes raised concerns whether the interlocal group was the appropriate oversight body.
"If you were going to do something for quality of air, you do it right through the legislature," she said. "You don't have to do it through a brand new bureaucracy. This is big government at its worst."
Adams said the group is ultimately held accountable by the legislature. Selling utility customers on the importance of not opting-out may prove to be a challenge, based on public sentiment Tuesday.
"Short answer is, I don't like it at all," Jessica Williams said. Another woman, Carla Pereyra, also raised concerns.
"It seems like anything they can ax, they add it on these days," she said. Adams suggested the charge added up to a way for Utahns to do their part. "A lot of people are really concerned about air quality," he said. "If they are, they get to donate. And if they are not, they don't."
Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Paul Murphy said the utility wouldn't oppose the legislation if all utilities are required to collect the fee. He said the company also wanted to be compensated for the costs of reconfiguring their billing system to add the charge to their bills.