SALT LAKE CITY — Boosting the gas tax and improving air quality emerged as top legislative priorities for the Salt Lake Chamber during a recent meeting with House Speaker Becky Lockhart and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.
Lockhart, R-Provo, and Niederhauser, R-Sandy, told the chamber's business and community leaders Wednesday that both issues are expected to be discussed by the 2014 Legislature.
But neither offered much hope lawmakers would be willing to raise the state's 24.5-cent gas tax for the first time since 1997, though both agreed with the chamber about the need for new ways to encourage the public to curb pollution.
"The gas tax is a dying tax," Lockhart said, citing the increased fuel efficiency of vehicles that cuts into tax collections as drivers buy less gasoline. "Let's stop relying on it."
But the GOP-dominated Legislature likely won't find an alternative this session, she said.
"I think it will be difficult to find any revenue enhancements coming out of the House," the speaker said.
Every member of the House is up for re-election this year, as is half of the Senate.
Instead, Lockhart said, she expects lawmakers to continue to look for alternative types of user fees for drivers during the interim meetings that begin after the 2014 Legislature ends in March.
Niederhauser, however, said it was important to address transportation funding this session so Utah can count on keeping its designation as one of the nation's best-managed states.
The Senate president said having to tap into sources other than the gas tax to pay for roads affects the amount of money available for the state's public and higher education systems.
He said lawmakers could look at more than just the gas tax, including raising vehicle registration fees. Niederhauser said he doesn't see any other tax increases on the table this session.
Lane Beattie, chamber president and CEO, said the organization has backed what he termed indexing the gas tax — tying the rate to inflation so purchasing power isn't lost — for years.
"We think that's really not a tax increase," Beattie told reporters after the meeting, arguing that in reality the value of the rate has actually decreased. "What it does is it just stops the bloodletting."
He said the chamber had no preference on how the indexing would be set.
"If we just come up with something that would keep us level so we don't keep losing money every year, we're not asking to make up the difference," Beattie said.
The last tax increase, he said, was 5 cents to pay for improvements to I-15 through Salt Lake County. He said the chamber has an "inherent problem" with earmarking, including setting aside a portion of sales tax growth for roads.
Beattie, a former Senate president, said he is optimistic action will be taken this session, noting that Niederhauser was willing to at least take a look at the hike even though Lockhart was firm nothing will happen.
"We think there's enough need in the state of Utah that they're going to have to look at it," Beattie said.
When roads have to compete with education for funding, he said, "something has to be increased somewhere."
Air quality "is extremely important to us," Beattie said. "We want all businesses to look what they can do," as well as families to limit vehicle use especially during the inversion season.
"How do we make a difference on bad air days? That's what we're asking ourselves now. And we cannot do that unless we get everyone to participate," he said, calling industry pollution only a small percent of the problem.
At the meeting, Niederhauser said lawmakers will likely resist mandates aimed at easing vehicle emissions but would support efforts to educate the public about actions they can take to improve the air.
He said, as an example, he walks a half-mile to church every Sunday.
"We recognize this is a big deal," Niederhauser said. "We want to do it without becoming 'Big Brother' or a central government."
Lockhart said she agreed voluntary changes in personal behavior are the solution.
"We have to figure out things we can do that will work — not just rhetoric (like), 'Let's shut down industry,'" the speaker said.
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