Utah Carbon Pricing Ballot Initiative Makes Further Strides

Utah’s Clean the Darn Air campaign aims to put air quality and climate concerns on the ballot in 2020. Advocates hope to put a price on carbon pollution and use the revenues to improve notoriously poor air quality in the state, as well as invest in rural economic development and offset existing taxes.

What does the initiative do?

The proposal establishes a fee of $11 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions, which increases by 3.5% per year until it reaches a cap of $100. Most of the revenue generated is returned to residents of the state in the form of tax swaps—notably by eliminating the state sales tax on groceries. The remainder of the revenue is invested in local air quality improvements and rural economic development. 

As campaign leader Yoram Bauman explains, “the basic idea behind the Clean the Darn Air measure is that we’re going to tax pollution instead of taxing potatoes, and then we’re going to take the money that’s left over and use it to clean the darn air.”

Estimates from the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst predict the initiative will generate a net $40 million in 2022, bringing in $130 million in revenue while offsetting $90 million in state sales tax. 

An analysis of the initiative found that the economic impacts for the bottom 40% of income-earners in the state are net positive. Individuals can use the calculator tool to estimate how their particular households will be impacted. 

The initiative is motivated by Utah’s chronic air pollution concerns, driven partially by winter inversions that trap pollution close to the surface. The air quality concerns in the state have been linked with significant public health problems. 

Where the campaign stands

The campaign for a ballot initiative is well under way, with advocates beginning to collect signatures the last week of June. Utah state law requires ballot initiatives to get signatures from 8% of all active voters (115,869 signatures), as well as 8% of voters in 26 of the 29 state Senate districts. The campaign is therefore aiming to get 116,000 signatures by February of 2020, with a particular push in the summer months. 

One creative approach the campaign is employing to reach its signature goal is the “Emissionaries” program. It brings together sponsors who provide $500 to young people who agree to spend 40 hours gathering signatures, ideally bringing in more than 1,000 signatures in that time. 

Another program is the “250 Club” which provides incentives and recognition for volunteers who collect more than 250 signatures. 

Bob Cieri is a co-founder of the campaign and a top signature collector, gathering 200 names in his first three days. When asked about what drives him to volunteer, Cieri told Climate XChange, “Utah’s poor air quality is a major motivator for me—I’d like to see money raised from charging polluters used to cleaning up our dirty winter and summer air.”

Advocates took advantage of the recent 4th of July activities, rapidly gathering signatures at parades and other crowded events. 

Political will

In response to the campaign efforts in the state, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who has previously been criticized on his climate policies, encouragingly expressed willingness to engage on the issue, stating, “I’m not supporting it, I’m not opposed to it. I’m willing to have the discussion.” 

Enthusiasm can be seen at the city level, too, with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupsk sponsoring a resolution “In Support of a National Price on Carbon Emissions” at the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors’ meeting in Honolulu. 

With several thousand signatures collected in the first week, the campaign is off to a solid, early start. Air quality is an important issue for many Utah residents, which should help make a price on carbon pollution an easy sell. We’ll keep an eye on the campaign in the coming months, as there will certainly be more updates to come.