Utah stands to lose its State Bureau of Air Quality if tax-limitation initiatives are approved by voters in November.
"It would be a disaster," said Kenneth Alkema, director of the Utah Division of Environmental Health, which includes the bureau.Gov. Norm Bangerter asked Alkema and other division heads where they thought cuts should be made, assuming the initiatives pass.
Gubernatorial staff members estimate cuts would amount to an average 13 percent, across the board. But they wouldn't be made in a uniform way; most likely, the Legislature would cut some programs more in order not to slash other vital functions, like education, quite as much.
This means Alkema probably has to face at least a 13 percent cut in state funding. But the budget cleaver would chop deeper, because more than 50 percent of environmental health funding comes from federal matching grants.
Sometimes, programs are matched on the basis of $1 in federal money for each $1 in state funds, sometimes at the ratio of $2 federal per $1 from Utahns.
A 13 percent drop in state funding would cut $510,000 from the Division of Environmental Health's annual budget. It would amount to more than $1 million, when the loss of federal money is counted.
"We think it would be very devastating," Alkema said. An apparent alternative would be to cut all division programs by 13 percent. But that option is illusory, he believes.
"We're already so lean that if we reduce all of them 13 percent, we're going to lose all of them," Alkema said. "We're not going to be able to meet the requirements that the federal government places on us for delegation."
By delegation, he means authority delegated to the state to regulate its own environmental affairs. If federal standards can't be maintained, the Environmental Protection Agency will resume primary responsibility for enforcing laws in this field.
Also, he said, if there's an across-the-board cut in Environmental Health, "we're not going to be able to protect the public in any area - radiation control, hazardous waste, water pollution, drinking water, and in the Bureau of Air Quality."
Having rejected a uniform reduction in all his bureaus, Alkema looked at the bureaus that could absorb a $510,000 reduction in state funds, assuming entire bureau were eliminated.
The only ones large enough to "save" that much money are Air Quality, Water Pollution Control, and Drinking Water. Basically at random, Alkema chose Air Quality as the one he'd recommend to cut.
He emphasized two things: the recommendation had to be done quickly, without time for an analysis, and the Legislature will direct where and how the cuts will be made, assuming the initiatives pass.
"All the governor can do is make recommendations and then the Legislature makes the decision" about how cuts are made, he said.
"The impact of a 13 percent reduction would be the loss of a bureau like Air Quality."
The bureau has about 40 employees. "Our reduction would be between about 30 and 35," the environmental chief said.
Under the initiatives, the cuts would take a year to implement. During that time, employees who left other bureaus could be replaced by Air Quality employees looking for a transfer.
But of course, Air Quality staffers are worried about their careers.
Taxes are the underpinnings of our civilization.
We would live in chaos without inspectors who check our Grade A USDA steaks, without the teachers who help our children learn to survive, without officers patrolling the dark streets, and without highways, airports, water treatment plants, soldiers and libraries. They're an outward embodiment of our system; call them the government's hands and fingers and feet.
Tax is the food that nourishes them all.
Starve the body politic of tax, and it begins to wither. Even supposing this is reversible, it's a terrible sign.
We're not talking about a minor cutback. In the Division of Environmental Health we might lose the entire Bureau of Air Quality. Multiply that by all the state agencies, libraries, and schools.
Every time a government program was funded, our elected representatives weighed its value against the cost. When people decided to move here, it was with the unspoken faith that our quality of life would be protected.
These myriads of decisions must mean something, yet they'd be annihilated by a simple yes-no vote on Nov. 8.
Utah seems on the brink of reneging on promises made for generations - promises to you and me about schools, libraries, and air. The state may be about to break its vows to professionals who committed their careers to Indian Hills School, the Anderson-Foothill Branch of the Salt Lake City Library, or the Bureau of Air Quality.
And for what? A few hundred dollars in the pocket!
Men and women who work hard to put our society's ideals into effect deserve better than this betrayal, and we do too.