Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Air pollution has cast an ugly gray cloud over the Capitol for most the first three weeks of the 2013 Utah Legislature.
The winter inversion that traps smog in the Salt Lake Valley has been one of the worst in recent memory. The air has reached unhealthy levels on more than 20 days this year, according to the state Division of Air Quality.
"So, obviously that's going to drive the discussion," said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe.
Utahns, including doctors and mothers, have made their voices heard, rallying several times to demand lawmakers do something about the haze and its threat to good health. And the business community says air quality is a pivotal issue because it has become an impediment to economic development and recruiting top professionals to the state.
"I've never had so much communication about clean air," said House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
As legislators return to the capitol Tuesday, the lack of clean air has emerged as a top-of-mind issue as the real legislative work begins. Lawmakers typically spend the first half of the 45-day session teeing up bills for a fast and furious final week.
Gun laws, education funding and building a state budget amid fiscal uncertainty in Washington are looming. The ongoing controversy surrounding Republican Attorney General John Swallow hasn't sidetracked lawmakers, but it has created an undercurrent of uneasiness and spurred calls for ethics reform.
Legislation proposing to raise the sales tax on food has yet to come out, and apparently won't. Republican leaders in the Senate, where the bill would have originated, said the House wouldn't support it. A food tax is of great concern to advocates for low income families struggling to put food on the table week after week.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, has made it clear she doesn't want the bill to pass.
"I am personally opposed to putting the sales tax back on food. The House and the Senate are very different bodies," she said. "They make their own decisions."
All the noise, not to mention hacking and wheezing, about smog has apparently spurred lawmakers to action.
Democrats, who are a decided minority in the Legislature, unveiled a package of clean-air bills last week. One proposal would create a restricted fund to provide more operational support for mass transit.
But getting money into such an account doesn't appear likely.
Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, are not inclined to raise the gas tax or increase the local option sales tax for transit.
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams said he is working with the House, the governor's office and community interests on legislation he intends to unveil this week.
"We're trying to do this as a joint effort. I think it's important to make sure as we discuss it that we've looked at all the different options," the Layton Republican said.
Adams declined to reveal details of the proposal but said it would be beneficial to both air quality and the economy.
House Republicans are promising to introduce new legislation dealing with air quality, while GOP Gov. Gary Herbert has stressed the state's efforts on air quality during his question-and-answer sessions with the media.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said the majority party's proposals "will be substantial," but declined to offer any specifics, citing leadership's attempt to solicit bipartisan support before the legislation is unveiled.
At least 10 gun-related bills have been filed, with legislators likely to start taking them up this week.
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