Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Here are big issues of the 2013 legislative session

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

As the Legislature begins its second half, here's our take on some of the big issues being addressed.

Air pollution continues to be an enormous — and very difficult — issue in Utah. Can the Legislature do more to improve air quality?

Pignanelli: "It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it." — Dan Quayle

This session prompted many legislative responses to Utah's winter inversion nightmare. Republicans Jack Draxler and Lowry Snow were first out of the gates with their clean fuel tax credit incentives. Democrats followed up with a well-publicized package of bills. Rep. Patrice Arent wishes to require state agencies' reduction of polluting activities. Rep. Joel Briscoe is requesting appropriation for Utah Transit Authority passes in January and July. Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck wants the flexibility to impose regulations more stringent than the Environmental Protection Agency when applicable. Urging industries to use the best available technology to scrub emissions is the hope of Rep. Lynn Hemingway. Rep. Greg Hughes, as UTA chair, successfully pushed the purchase of many natural-gas powered buses — an action that will reduce pollution.

These are all wonderful well-intentioned reactions to the cruddy air we breathe every winter. But similar to years past, as the momentum for change reaches its highest levels, the weather warms and the Legislature adjourns. Any thoughts of public transportation are buried under the dreams of cruising the SUV down the freeway with the sun roof open. (I can't wait to clean the salt off my Jeep and push the new speed limits.) Our way of life is not changing soon.

Webb: Here's something quick and simple the Legislature could do that would make a real difference: Authorize a ballot measure so voters could decide whether or not to expand the public transit system on the Wasatch Front, thus increasing frequency of buses and trains so that more people would ride public transit.

I do some work with the Utah Mobility Coalition, sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber, which has endorsed the state's Unified Transportation Plan. That plan anticipates allowing citizens to vote on a ballot measure sometime in the next few years, raising additional revenue to improve transit service.

The Legislature could simply speed up that timeline, either placing a proposal on the ballot, or giving counties authority to do so. The Legislature would not be raising a tax but simply giving citizens an opportunity to decide themselves if they want enhanced transit service to reduce air pollution. Public transit in Utah has always been funded by citizens voting at the ballot box.

If voters are concerned about dirty air and believe that public transit can make a difference, they could vote to expand and increase frequency of service. It would be a simple action for the Legislature to take, but it could be a big step forward.

Will lawmakers be able to pass a balanced budget with so much uncertainty in Washington about federal spending?

Pignanelli: There is plenty of bold talk by officials to the effect of, "I hope the sequestration happens. The federal government needs the discipline." Thus, a self-fulfilled prophecy of short-term sequestration will occur after the session concludes. Lawmakers are well aware of this possibility and will build a traditional budget and then a contingency budget should the bottom fall out and Utah's $500 million surplus converts into a $300 million deficit.

Webb: The Legislature will know the amount of end-of-February sequestration cuts in time to pass a revamped state budget. But uncertainty will undoubtedly continue as Congress squabbles. Utah lawmakers are wise to put contingency plans in place and prepare for the day when federal spending declines significantly.

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