I think there is a recognition in the Legislature that this is an important issue, that this is on the public's mind and they can't just ignore it, and that is a good thing. —Gov. Gary Herbert
SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers threw a significant chunk of change at Utah's nagging air pollution problem this session and also took deliberative steps to institute additional efforts aimed at cleaning the air.
While the 45-day session did not accomplish everything Gov. Gary Herbert called for or meet all the concerns of clean air advocates, observers say the session marked a notable turning point for public policymakers on air pollution.
"I think we made some strides in air quality," said Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, adding that lawmakers ponied up cash to put scientists to work on the problem.
Overall, lawmakers pumped up the state Division of Air Quality's budget with more than $3 million in additional funding, directing $1.4 million to fund local research and another $400,000 that in part will pay for two new compliance officers to work specifically on pollution issues related to the oil and gas industry.
Herbert said lawmakers took their acknowledgement of a problem and passed some important measures, even if they may not have acted on everything he wanted.
"I think there is a recognition in the Legislature that this is an important issue, that this is on the public's mind and they can't just ignore it, and that is a good thing," he said.
Amanda Smith, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the infusion of new money is the most significant financial boost lawmakers have committed to air quality since 2008, when the state was in flush economic times.
"We've had an amazing year," Smith said. "This is really the first time the state has been given the resources to be proactive. It is really a bold move."
Some of that new funding includes $750,000 for the division to establish a wood-smoke program to help pay for households to convert to natural gas furnaces if they rely on wood burning as a sole source of heat.
In other action, the Utah Legislature:
Upped the state tax credit for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids to $1,500.
Provided $200,000 in one-time money for grants to replace or convert old, polluting machines that include heavy-duty diesel engines and small non-road engines such as lawnmowers or snowblowers.
Clarified that businesses or employers that charge motorists to plug into electric charging stations are not considered "utilities," helping encourage the facilitation of electric vehicle infrastructure.
The GOP-dominated Legislature, however, refused to budge on overturning or modifying a state law that forbids air quality regulators from making rules more stringent than the Environmental Protection Agency.
Removing that hurdle was widely seen by advocates and others as a way to give Utah regulators more flexibility to deal with the Wasatch Front's unique wintertime temperature inversions.
Lawmakers, however, steered clear of engaging in any substantive action on either of the two proposals dealing with the no more stringent standard, to the dismay of advocates and Democrats who pushed for reform.
Matt Pacenza, policy director for HEAL Utah, said lawmakers took important steps to address air pollution, but didn't advance on this particular issue.
"It is great that these guys spent some money, but it is about freeing up regulators too," he said.
Advocates also wanted, but did not get, lawmakers to signal the state's endorsement of cleaner fuel standards adopted by the EPA.
A local option transit tax — touted as a clean air measure — passed in the House but did not get a vote in the Senate.
Some saw the measure as one of the most significant steps lawmakers could take to clean the air by providing a source of new funding for expansion of transit or addition of bike trails.
The bill had the support of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake Chamber and multiple clean air groups. Despite a late-night, last-minute push to pass the measure, the Senate lacked the appetite to take it up.
On the renewable energy front, the Utah Legislature passed SB224, providing production tax credits for projects like ECG Utah Solar 1, a planned 300-megawatt solar field in Millard County.
It also reauthorized a law that allows local and military entities to pursue power purchase agreements for rooftop solar systems on behalf of residents and backed off a controversial net-metering bill critics said would have discouraged the residential and small-business solar market.
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