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Tax or donation? Opinions differ on clean air funding bill

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27 2014 2:00 p.m. MST

A Utah lawmaker believes he has found a voluntary way for people to contribute to efforts aimed at cleaning up the dirty air in the state, but critics of his measure say he is proposing to tax people who can least afford it. A hearing is Friday. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press) A Utah lawmaker believes he has found a voluntary way for people to contribute to efforts aimed at cleaning up the dirty air in the state, but critics of his measure say he is proposing to tax people who can least afford it. A hearing is Friday. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker believes he has found a simple, voluntary way for people concerned about air quality problems to chip in a nominal amount and help pay for solutions.

The effort by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, however, has raised the ire of consumer and low-income advocates who agree the cause is laudable, but insist the financing mechanism is flawed.

"We have serious concerns because this is essentially a hidden tax," said Michele Beck, director of the state Office of Consumer Affairs.

SB243 would allow natural gas and electric utility customers in Utah to pay up to $1 on each bill to fund air quality initiatives. Adams said he considers it a "donation" because there is an opt-out provision for people who don't want to pay.

"Those who don't like it can opt out. Maybe they want to opt out for financial reasons, or maybe they will opt out because they don't want to clean up the air or they don't think it's their role," Adams said.

The measure will be heard at an 8 a.m. Friday meeting of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.

While there may be a flurry of clean air bills wafting through the Legislature this session, Adams said SB243 provides a concrete, voluntary way to pay for the suite of initiatives.

He figures that if no one opted out, the measure would raise $18 million a year, of which 10 percent would go to an organization such as the Utah Clean Air Initiative and 20 percent would be funneled to the Utah Air Quality Board to pay for local research.

The remainder of the money raised through utility bills would be socked away into a fund managed by the Utah Alternative Energy Interlocal Entity. Adams said it could be used to convert large fleets to clean fuels, pay for people to convert their wood-burning stoves to natural gas furnaces or put in more alternative fuel infrastructure.

"We are seeing a lot of demand for electric and natural gas facilities," he said.

But Beck said it is the wrong way to go.

"There may be an opt out provision but it is not necessarily consumer friendly," she said.

The measure provides a 45-day window in which the utility company notifies its customers of the charge and the ability to opt out. Customers may opt out via mail, telephone or by Internet at least once a year.

But Beck and others say "opting" not to contribute simply doesn't wash.

"I have spent 20 years fighting for rate payers to make sure our utility bills are not higher than they have to be," said consumer advocate Claire Geddes.

"Utilities are basic services. People living on fixed incomes are generally not the ones out driving around polluting — they are senior citizens," she said.

Beck said one important reason Utah enjoys low utility rates is because they are "clean," without a lot of added fees.

"We have relatively clean rates because we are not funding public purpose programs in our rates," she said. "If the Legislature thinks they can fund public initiatives through a utility bill rather than raising taxes, that is a slippery slope."

Adams disagreed, and said his measure constitutes about the simplest way for everyone to participate in cleaning up the air — if they want to.

"I've had a lot of positive response on this and people have told me they want to donate more than a dollar. We have a lot of clean air bills up here, but none have a funding source."

Clean air advocate Carl Ingwell said he likes the bill in theory, but he worries it will hurt low-income people.

"I don't necessarily like the way it is set up," he said. "There are already people who struggle to pay their utility bills every month."

Charlie Luke, chairman of the intergovermental entity, said people who can't afford to pay won't have to, and he also rejected the idea that the bill imposes a "hidden" tax.

"You can't opt out of a hidden tax," he said.

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