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Air Quality Rises To Top Of Lawmakers' Agenda

Judy Fahys/KUER
House Speaker Greg Hughes flanks Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, during last year's clean air rally at the Capitol. Public pressure has pushed air quality to the top of the political agenda in Utah.

The 2016 General Session of the Utah Legislature begins Monday, and lawmakers already have more than a dozen initiatives on their agenda aimed at improving air quality.

Members of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus started by Rep. Patrice Arent a few years ago are behind many of the air-quality priorities on this year’s legislative agenda. The Millcreek Democrat says initiatives that have to do with money top the list.

“Appropriations requests are not bills with numbers,” she says, “but they’re very, very important.”

Funds are needed to convert dirty school buses and provide incentives for cleaner business equipment. Money’s also necessary to modernize Utah’s pollution monitoring system and to do scientific research on its unique pollution problems.

Arent says: “I don’t think the Legislature wants to spend money unless there’s good data behind them, good research.”

Lawmakers are expected to consider revamping polluter penalties that are decades old and allowing taxpayers to donate to air-quality programs on their state tax returns. Other bills will deal with solar panels, electric-car recharging stations and clean gasoline. Lawmakers are also expected decide a quarrel that’s been simmering all year, as homebuilders and air-quality advocates fight over updating building codes so that homes and businesses pollute less.

Arent says the air quality issue is getting lots of attention in Utah’s State Capitol these days.

“The public is having a great impact,” she says. “There’s no question about it. When legislators hear from their constituents about a problem, they want to respond. So, if the public wants to be involved, the first thing they need to do is contact their legislators.”

Utahns have become more concerned in recent years about the ways poor air quality affects their health, quality of life and the economy.

Gov. Gary Herbert has responded this year by requesting around $7 million dollars in next year’s budget for key air-quality programs, including monitoring and research. But those initiatives won’t get funding without the Legislature’s approval.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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