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Utahns Might Vote On a Carbon Tax In 2020

Photo of air in Salt Lake valley.
Brian Albers / KUER
Utah lawmakers put $29 million toward air quality measures during the 2019 legislative session, but the group behind the carbon tax ballot initiative says that isn't enough.

A campaign calling itself “Clean the Darn Air” is proposing a ballot initiative in 2020 that would impose a state carbon tax, if approved by Utah voters.

“This proposal would take serious action in terms of putting $75 million a year into cleaning the darn air,” said Yoram Bauman, an economist and one of the initiative’s original co-sponsors.

This isn’t his first time putting the question of a carbon tax before voters. Bauman, who moved with his family to Utah in 2017, spearheaded the country’s first ballot initiative for a carbon tax, which was on Washington’s 2016 ballot. The measure failed with only 42% support from the state’s voters.

Bauman said his family loves Utah, “except for the air quality.”

“We’ve got two young kids and it’s a huge issue. It’s on the top of our minds,” he said.

Utah lawmakers put $29 million toward air quality measures this year, which Bauman says is a start, but not enough. Gov. Gary Herbert had asked for $100 million — more than three times the amount lawmakers approved.

The idea of a carbon tax has been floated in the State Legislature before, but saw little support. Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, has proposed a carbon tax for several years in the Utah Legislature, but it has never made it to a floor vote.

Utah voters embraced three ballot initiatives last November, passing propositions on medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and an independent redistricting commission. Utah lawmakers, however, quickly revised two of those initiatives in the following months.

To qualify for the 2020 Utah ballot, the group must hold public meetings across the state and collect roughly 115,000 signatures by next year. Ballot measures need signatures from 10% of registered voters in 26 of the state’s 29 counties in order to get on the ballot.

The group’s proposed carbon tax would start at about $11 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, about 10 cents per gallon of gasoline and less than a penny per kilowatt hour of electricity, Bauman said. It would climb to $15 per ton in 2031 and $20 per ton in 2040.

The bulk of the money raised through the tax — about 80%, according to Bauman — would go toward expanding other tax credits and ending the state’s grocery tax.

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

The other 20% would go toward air pollution and economic development projects in rural Utah.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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