Carbon Pricing Ballot Initiative Launched in Utah

On April 8th, five Utah residents mobilizing as the “Clean the Darn Air” campaign filed paperwork to lay the groundwork for a 2020 state carbon pricing ballot initiative.

The initiative, titled the Clean the Air Carbon Tax Act, will impose an $11 per carbon ton fee that will increase by 3.5% (including inflation) annually, to $15 per ton in 2030 and $20 in 2040, until ultimately capping off at $100. While the majority of generated revenue will be returned to Utahns via tax swaps, a sizable portion — about 20% — will be invested in local air quality improvements and rural economic development.

Leading the charge is Yoram Bauman, an economist who spearheaded similar efforts in Washington State in 2016. He directed the push for Initiative 732, the first-ever state carbon pricing ballot initiative in the nation. While those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful — only 42% of voters supported the measure — Bauman took away key lessons from that experience.

“One lesson we learned from Washington is not to take support from the environmental community for granted,” Bauman told Climate XChange in an interview, acknowledging that his Yes on 732! Group struggled to gain traction among some environmental and social justice groups. “Hopefully, elements of our policy will be amenable to that faction.”

The Push for Cleaner Air

Utah residents have long been concerned with the state’s notorious air pollution problem, which is, in part, caused by winter inversions, a weather pattern that traps pollution close to the Earth’s surface. These inversions are common in Utah, particularly in the winter, largely due to the state’s unique topography and high vehicle emissions. The health effects of this are consequential, as numerous studies have shown significant links between the state’s poor air quality and increased risk for miscarriage and illness.

Recognizing the urgency of the issue of pollution, and the bipartisan appeal for cleaner air, Bauman and the other climate advocates backing the initiative have earmarked $75 million of the generated revenue for clean air efforts. These include cleaning up dirty school buses and refurbishing freight switchers, which are highly polluting locomotives that shuttle trains across rail yards before they’re shipped across the country. Additionally, some revenue will go towards providing Utah residents incentives to switch to electric vehicles, among other clean energy initiatives.

“We have a clean air focus to the campaign, rather than a climate focus to the campaign,” Bauman said, adding: “we have been reasonably successful at messaging that so far.”

The state government has been relatively complacent on this issue, and environmental groups have taken note. In January, a coalition of groups filed a notice of intent to sue the US Environmental Protection Agency for not holding Utah accountable for missing deadlines to submit plans to clean up air pollution. And even though Governor Gary Herbert requested $100 million for clean air initiatives, the state legislature only approved $29 million. Still, this is a sizable increase from the year before, when only half a million dollars was appropriated for clean air initiatives.

“This is an issue that needs to be taken seriously and needs more resources,” Bauman said. “There’s a value for money — folks are tired of the dirty air and want action.”

A Tax Swap

While clean air will be the messaging focus of the carbon pricing campaign, 80% of revenue will be used to reduce existing taxes, by:

  • Eliminating the state sales tax on grocery store food
  • Creating a 20% state match for the federal earned income tax credit
  • Expanding the retirement tax credit

“Instead of taxing food, this is going to be taxing fossil fuels,” Bauman said.

What Happens Next

In order to get the initiative on the ballot, the group must gather at least 113,143 signatures. Signatures must come from across the state, representing at least 10% of active voters in 26 of 29 State Senate districts, and they must be submitted by mid-February of 2020.

The governor’s budget analysts will study the fiscal implications of the proposed initiative over the next couple of weeks, until May 6th. Then, the measure will be discussed at seven public hearings across the state.

“After that, we have the opportunity to modify the measure if we choose to do so, which would then require another one month delay,” Bauman said, adding that the group will begin gathering signatures in June.

Bauman added the initiative will need support from people on both sides of the political aisle in order to gain traction: “Utah is a very conservative state, so we will need to get lots of votes from folks on the right who care about clean air and rural development.”

What It All Means

No US state has successfully imposed a price on carbon despite overwhelming evidence it would help our society reduce emissions and combat climate change. But 14 states proposed carbon pricing legislation in 2019, and dozens of countries around the world have successfully levied a fee on carbon.

Utah’s proposal is modeled after a carbon pricing bill (HB 304) that has failed twice in the state legislature. Rep. Joel Briscoe (D-Salt Lake City), who sponsored the bill this year, said he believes carbon pricing should be further discussed in the legislature before going up for a public vote.

“Ballot initiatives that passed in 2018 on Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana followed three or four or five years of discussion in the legislature and bills making it through a significant part of the legislature,” Briscoe said. “I don’t think we’ve had that time yet with a carbon tax.”

But Bauman and others feel the issue is too pressing to be put on hold, and while this year’s carbon pricing bill was a step in the right direction, it didn’t make it out of Committee.

Advocates in other states have begun looking at paths beyond the state legislature to achieve carbon pricing. In Pennsylvania, for example, lawyers have successfully filed a rulemaking petition calling for an economy cap-and-trade program.

“Some of us felt like we weren’t seeing daylight in the legislative path,” Bauman said. “And so we decided to file a ballot measure.”

It remains to be seen if the initiative will gain significant traction — or make it onto the ballot at all. But Bauman has been here before, and knows how to launch a push for carbon pricing. In Utah, there’s reason to believe this could be the beginning of a movement.