SALT LAKE CITY — A group of legislators who oversee air quality development ideas say it's time to get more serious about funding infrastructure that could improve Utah's air quality.
Founded over a decade ago, the Clean Air Caucus, a bipartisan group of Utah legislators from the House of Representatives and Senate, has looked at various ways to handle the state's air quality problems.
The group's members say they've tackled many of the smaller items on their list that could be addressed through bills and are now focused more on bigger items that will require serious funding. The caucus supports 22 legislative proposals that tackle air quality concerns.
"It gets harder and harder and more and more expensive, so I think a lot of our focus has changed from bills to appropriation requests because it takes money," said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.
Weiler and other caucus members staged a media briefing on the steps of the Utah Capitol Wednesday afternoon to reveal all the items they want to be passed in the final few weeks of the 2021 Legislative Session. They said they're aware many likely won't get funded, but they hope it will raise awareness for items they hope to get passed.
Members of the caucus say there are many reasons why air quality is important to address. It's partly why it became a bipartisan issue for the legislature. Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said the issue impacts health and the state's economy.
"We have ample evidence that it impacts health, it impacts our children's learning ability, it impacts the ability of Utah to attract jobs. When we have people who come into our state on a bad air day, they don't come back," he said. "We have to address this not only from a perspective of health and safety but also for the economic well-being for our state."
Here's a look at some of this year's legislation that aims to improve air quality in Utah.
Funding for FrontRunner double-tracking remains one of the largest budget requests not only from the caucus but also by the governor's office. Much like his predecessor, Gov. Spencer Cox proposed the plan in his first-ever budget proposal. His request was $350 million on the project, which would speed up the train service and allow for more trains and riders.
Weiler said Wednesday he believes funding for double-tracking could finally pass this year. Cox also proposed $6 million for electric vehicle infrastructure in rural Utah.
There are a few other appropriations items that deal with transportation in one way or another. For instance, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, said he's sponsoring a funding request for a Salt Lake County request to put air monitors on Utah Transit Authority buses for a year. The monitors would allow the county to better track air quality in many new locations all over the Salt Lake Valley.
Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, said she's sponsoring a rollout of hydrogen production with the Utah Inland Port located in Salt Lake City as the hub for the project. It's one of the two items she's supporting this year in regard to hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels.
"It's one of the most abundant elements that we have on the earth; and for transportation needs, for example, it actually takes less water to fuel cars and trucks with hydrogen than it does with petroleum," she said.
Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, who serves as one of the caucus's co-chairs, said she is seeking to have the state restore incentives for individuals, businesses and municipalities to swap out "dirty" vehicles — as well as snow removal and lawn equipment — for cleaner options that reduce emissions and improve air quality. She specifically pointed to appropriations for the Clean Technology Fund and Clean Air Retrofit, Replacement and Off-Road Technology (CARROT) Program.
Harrison said her appropriations requests were inspired by her primary job as a doctor and having patients complain of breathing issues, especially during the worst air quality days.
Other proposed legislation
These are several other bills also addressed Wednesday's press conference:
- HB123 - Feasibility Study for Air Quality Laboratory: Handy, the bill's sponsor, said this bill will create a commission to look into the potential for a "world-class" laboratory to study air quality. He said he believes the ideal location for the lab would be where the outgoing Utah State Prison is located, which is in Draper and by the Point of the Mountain.
- HB131 - State Facility Energy Efficiency Amendments: This bill, which already passed both the House and Senate unanimously, requires a study of utilities at all of the 3,500 state buildings for better utility management.
- HB145 - Clean and Renewable Energy Requirement Amendments: Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said this bill that he is sponsoring would adjust goals for renewable energy that the state passed over a decade ago. The new goal would be for the state to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030, which he said "is not an unrealistic goal."
- HB209 (Substitute) - Vehicle Registration Fee Revisions: Ward opposed a bill that passed a House committee last week and would raise registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicles 150% to 400%. On Wednesday he said he will sponsor a substitute bill that would phase in the rise in "a fair rate" in registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicle owners.
- HB223 - Alternative Fuel Incentives Amendments: Ballard said this bill would put hydrogen-fueled vehicles in the same class of tax incentives as other alternative-fuel vehicles. The format is currently not incentivized in the state.
- HB263 - Utah Clean Energy Fund: This bill, sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, would create a fund for clean energy similar to programs in neighboring states. He said Wednesday that there are 11 states with a funding program and Utah is one of about 15 states considering it. Briscoe added that he anticipates that President Joe Biden will issue funding for clean energy in the next year or two, and that having a fund will provide the state a place to accept federal money for that use. A good chunk of money would go toward communities switching to renewable energies.
- HCR5 - Resolution Encouraging Statewide Emissions Reduction Goals: Handy said the upcoming proposed resolution will aim to set targeted goals in relation to limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the future. That is, reducing 2005 emissions levels 25% by 2025 — which the state is already on track to complete — 50% by the end of this decade, and 80% by 2050. He said the resolution was a result of working in coordination with the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute about the subject.
- SB20 - Air Quality Policy Advisory Board Sunset Extension: This bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, would extend the length of the Air Quality Policy Advisory Board and add three individuals with a background in air quality academia to the board.
- Upcoming: Briscoe said he is working on a bill that would allow "a right to charge," which would allow residents of multiple unit structures, like apartments, the right to charge electric vehicles if they are willing to pay for the cost of putting in the equipment.