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Republicans voted no, but Democratic Air Quality Board nominee still has a shot

Photo of air pollution
Brian Albers / KUER

In a split vote Tuesday, a stateSenate committee blocked Gov. Spencer Cox’s appointment of Democratic Salt Lake County Council member Suzanne Harrison to the Utah Air Quality Board.

Despite an unfavorable recommendation from three Republican committee members, the former Democratic House lawmaker still has a chance at the seat.

“Her nomination is very much alive,” said Republican Sen. Todd Weiler. He added the Senate just needs to vote on the appointment, which could happen Tuesday, April 10, or sometime in May.

Although it’s unclear if that vote will happen, the Governor's Office said her nomination was still “working its way through the process,” as of Thursday.

If approved by the full Senate, Harrison would replace Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on the board, whose term ended last month.

The board's main priority is implementing and enforcing air quality standards, both on the state and federal levels. It also helps influence policy for the legislature to consider.

Harrison said she was “so grateful” the governor selected her. She believes she is qualified for the position as a physician, a former lawmaker and her experience working with the oil and gas industry to promote cleaner energy use. She was also the chair of the Clean Air Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers working to improve Utah’s air quality.

Sen. Ron Winterton was one of the Republicans who gave Harrison an unfavorable recommendation. He pointed to her voting history on energy bills when she was a legislator from 2019 to January of this year.

“I don't see that she's a team player. I see that she's playing party lines,” he said during the hearing.

Specifically, he said she voted against a bill that would have given tax breaks to oil refineries for burning Tier 3 gas, a cleaner fuel source.

Harrison said her ‘no’ vote was because she was concerned that “one of the refineries hadn't shown any measurable effort to go down the path of making Tier 3 gas.”

While Republican Sen. Derrin Owens congratulated Harrison and said he “considered her a friend,” he ultimately voted against the nomination. He cited similar reasons as Winteron.

Owens also questioned Harrison’s early support of an air quality bill passed this past legislative session that would study bromine emissions from industries like U.S. Magnesium. In its original form, HB220 would have required industries to significantly reduce the amount of emissions pumped into the air and would penalize those that didn’t use Tier 3 gas.

While those provisions didn’t make it into the final version of the bill, Owens ended up voting yes on it.

Overall, Harrison said she was “disappointed” in how the hearing played out.

“It felt very partisan rather than a discussion of my qualifications and the reasons that Gov. Cox nominated me to serve on the Air Quality Board.”

She added that if she were to become a member of the board, she would be the only Democrat. To her, that falls in line with the board’s guidelines to have “a variety of government, industry and other backgrounds and expertise serving.”

“I think having multiple perspectives at the table and working through some of these difficult challenges we have is important, and it gets to better policy to serve the people of Utah.”

Editor's Note: Rep. Suzanne Harrison is a member of KUER’s advisory board.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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