Legislative Recap Week Six: Electric Cars, Vaping & Eggs
There’s less than a week left in Utah’s legislative session, which means lawmakers are busy trying to pass bills before the clock runs out at midnight Thursday, Mar. 12.
Those include some big, headline-grabbing bills and some less flashy ones as well. KUER’s Caroline Ballard joined political reporter Sonja Hutson outside the Capitol building in the courtyard to catch up on the week’s news. They began with what lawmakers are doing to get more electric vehicles on the road and address what’s known as “range anxiety.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: More and more electric vehicles are coming on the market, but a lot of people have what’s called “range anxiety,” where you might run out of juice before you can get to a charging station. What are lawmakers doing to try to address that and get more electric vehicles on the road?
Sonja Hutson: Obviously the conversation about this is tied to air quality, which Salt Lake City, and the Wasatch Front more broadly, know is a really big issue. And so the idea is they want to incentivize more people to use electric vehicles.
What this bill does is it allows an electric utility, a large-scale electric utility which would very likely be Rocky Mountain Power, to create an electric vehicle charging infrastructure all across the state. So you wouldn't have that range anxiety of, “Oh, there's not a charger for another 50 miles, what am I going to do?”
Most of the cost of that would be actually in the infrastructure of getting the power to those charging stations, not the chargers themselves. The bill does specify the utility can only spend up to $50 million on the project, and they can recoup that through electric bills. But the bill sponsor says customers actually won't see higher bills, he thinks, because Rocky Mountain Power is about to sunset another cost that they pass through to their ratepayers. This would just basically replace that.
CB: The Utah Senate also watered down a bill aimed at cracking down on vaping. This week, they lowered the proposed tax rate from 83% to 56%. What happened there?
SH: On Wednesday night, there was a little bit of ping pong about what this tax rate was actually going to be. Originally, the bill’s sponsor introduced a substitute bill that raised it from 56% to 83%, based on new information that said that 83% was closest to being equal to what the taxes would be on a pack of cigarettes. It has always been their goal to tax the same as a pack of cigarettes.
Some senators were upset that this rate of 83% was higher than what they'd proposed and agreed to in caucus meetings. Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, proposed an amendment that lowered the tax rate back to 56. And he said that was closer to the combined cigarette tax rate.
CB: But the bill's sponsor was pretty upset about that, right?
SH: He definitely was. He said he didn't want to give a tax break to tobacco companies, and that's what he felt like this was doing.
The bill did end up passing the Senate, and some people who voted yes on the bill were actually really upset about this. But they still voted yes on it, because they said that it was basically better than nothing — at least we were increasing the taxes somewhat.
When Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, was asked about this the next day, he said this was not giving into big tobacco. He says that the reason that they did this is because there's uncertainty on which tax rate is actually equivalent to the tax rate on a pack of cigarettes, and so going with this 56% was the safer route. He also ended that with saying, “If you know what [the tax rate] is, please tell me.”
CB: Lawmakers are also set to release their draft budget shortly. What do we know about it?
SH: Not a lot. We're still waiting for that, and obviously the devil is always in the details. But what we do know is that the general fund is tight this year and they're going to have difficulty funding a lot of bills that have been moving through the Legislature.
We also know that they are prioritizing raises for state employees and prioritizing money for mental health and education. Utahns could see a small tax cut. The house seems more enthusiastic about it than the Senate. But the House said that they would take a measured approach so the state can stay prepared for any economic downturn. And obviously there's a lot of anxiety about that, with what's going on with the stock market right now as related to the coronavirus.
The Legislature does have $80 million set aside from last year, and so they could use some or all of that for a tax cut. But they said they probably wouldn't use more than that for a tax cut. Like I said earlier, the Senate seems a lot more worried about the consequences of a tax cut. They're really worried about the volatility in the market because of the coronavirus.
CB: Okay, that's a lot of numbers. And while I know you, Sonja, are going to spend a very riveting weekend digging into the budget, what's happening on the lighter side of things? I've heard there's a bill that's really “hatching” this week?
SH: Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem, has a bill about eggs that passed a House committee this week. It changes the definition of a small producer of eggs so that you can be considered a small producer, even if you don't sell only to household consumers, restaurants or anyone else who's just going to consume the eggs and not turn around and sell them.
The reason that this matters at all is that small producers are exempt from state regulations.
I also learned a lot of fun egg vocabulary reading this bill, like “candling” means the act of determining the condition of an egg by holding it up in front of a light so that the light shines through it and you can see what's inside.
Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews
Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson