Governor calls for action on cleaning up Utah air
Medicaid expansion and defense of Utah’s gay-marriage ban also are on his to-do list.
Published: January 30, 2014 09:56AM
Updated: January 30, 2014 08:19AM
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Tribune file photo | Gov. Gary Herbert in his State of the State address Wednesday night is expected to address Utah's poor air quality, job growth and education..

Gov. Gary Herbert called for steps to clear Utah’s air, using his State of the State address to push for quicker adoption of clean-burning gasoline, clamping down on the use of wood-burning stoves and retrofitting aging, dirty school buses.

“These actions, and others, will have real costs and real impacts on all of us, but I’m convinced the benefits to our economy, to our communities and, most importantly, to our public health, will justify the costs,” Herbert said.

During his nearly 30-minute speech, Herbert also reiterated his plan to at least partially expand Medicaid to cover at least 60,000 Utahns without health insurance under Obamacare, to defend Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage, and appeared to respond to criticism earlier in the week from House Speaker Becky Lockhart that Herbert was failing to lead.

“Let us set aside any personal agenda and work to benefit the Utahns we serve,” Herbert said, while not naming Lockhart.

Action on air • It was the most direct call to action from the governor to date for dealing with Utah’s polluted air, which is among the unhealthiest in the nation.

Herbert said the state will accelerate its transition to so-called Tier 3 gasoline and lower-emission vehicles. The federal government is scheduled to begin phasing in the new standards for cleaner, low-sulfur gas in 2017. Utah likely would not get that fuel until 2019 at the earliest.

Herbert said Utah would make the change “as soon as possible,” reducing tailpipe emissions by as much as 80 percent. Essentially, the state would unilaterally adopt the clean-fuel standard earlier than federally required.

Herbert also cited research by the University of Utah which found that smoke from wood-burning stoves accounts for about 5 percent of particulates in the winter inversion. Burning one log for an hour emits the same amount of pollution as driving from Salt Lake City to St. George and back.

He called on the state’s Air Quality Board to limit wood burning in non-attainment areas during the entire inversion season but did not specify the steps the board would take.

Herbert’s environmental adviser, Alan Matheson, said the board would have to craft the new rules, but it is envisioned that the state would provide some incentives to replace wood-burning units that are the sole source of heat in 207 homes.

Beyond that, penalties for wood burning on “red-air” days would be expanded and applied to homes in non-attainment areas throughout the inversion season.

Lonnie Bullard, CEO of Jacobson Construction and co-chairman of the governor’s Clean Air Action Team, said the wood-burning-stove ban and Tier 3 push were the low-hanging fruit that everyone on the panel agreed could be done immediately and urged the governor to move quickly on.

“We didn’t want to wait another year,” Bullard said.

While the state’s Division of Air Quality could implement both programs without legislation, Bullard said they still want support from the Legislature.

Dr. Michelle Hofmann, a pediatrician who serves on the governor’s clean-air team, said the new fuel standards would have the single biggest impact on Utah’s air quality, because they go to the largest source of pollution. “It’s an everyman solution,” she said.

But the governor may have something of a selling job ahead in the Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said he’s not sure Republican lawmakers will want to take such a heavy-handed approach.

“I think we’re going to take a look at what’s responsible,” Okerlund said. “Obviously it’s going to be a little hard to tell people they can’t burn wood in their fireplaces, not do anything in their fireplaces any more. … I doubt we’ll want to get into the real weeds on those kinds of things.”

‘A good start’ • Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, is sponsoring legislation that would create an incentive for homeowners to replace their wood-burning stoves, beef up the enforcement of violators and create a public-education program so residents understand the requirements.

“I don’t believe everything the governor wants to see done was expressed in the speech tonight, but it was a good start,” she said. “Some of these things are very expensive, but I don’t think they’re as expensive as the health-care costs coming from air quality or the impact on our economy from loss of businesses or tourists who don’t [come here].”

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker commended the governor for the recommendations and said he hopes the Legislature will support him. He said he would like to see the state repeal a law preventing local governments from having environmental laws that are stricter than federal standards and said that more needs to be done to give local leaders tools to address their particular problems.

“Just giving us at the local level the ability to improve transit service is something that can have an enormous impact and relatively quick impact” on air quality, Becker said. “He talked about having Utah solutions for Utah issues. … We do need Utah solutions and sometimes we need local solutions for local challenges.”

Those local solutions are hampered, the mayor said, when the law ties the hands of local governments.

In his budget proposal in December, Herbert requested $18 million in new spending next year focused on improving air quality — much of it in the form of grants to replace old school buses, for business renovations and for air-quality research.

A bipartisan legislative caucus has released a growing list of bills it says would encourage cleaner-burning engines, more public transit and other measures to reduce emissions.

Matt Pacenza, spokesman for the group HEAL Utah, said the governor’s proposals move in the right direction, but “can’t be the final steps in how the governor approaches our dirty air problem.

“We also need to crack down on industrial air pollution and boost funding for mass transit, making it easier for Utahns to choose to not drive,” he said. “Smokestacks, not just tailpipes, should be required to put in place the best available safeguards. All sectors have to pitch in.”

Marriage, Obamacare • Herbert couched the state’s current fight over same-sex marriage in terms of federalism and state sovereignty, arguing Utah and other states should be allowed to define marriage as they see fit. But he also emphasized the need for civility as the federal appeals court considers a ruling that struck down Utah’s constitutional ban on same-sex unions.

“We will do everything in our power to represent the will of the people while respecting the democratic and judicial processes,” he said. “Let me be clear that while I support traditional marriage and will continue to defend Amendment 3, there is no place— and I repeat, no place — in our society for hatred and bigotry.”

And the governor criticized what he said was a flaw in the Affordable Care Act — known popularly as Obamacare — that would leave 60,000 Utahns living in poverty with less health coverage than those who make more money.

“This is not fair and it is not right,” Herbert said. “Assisting the poor in our state is a moral obligation that must be addressed.”

Herbert said he looked forward to working with lawmakers to find a Utah solution to fix the “hole in the safety net.”

Lockhart, who fired barbs at the governor in her remarks at Monday’s opening of the session, called the expansion of Medicaid with federal dollars that will be reduced over time “a trap, an out-in-the-open bait and switch.”

“The next time the White House offers more unfunded mandates,” she said, “and the governor’s office tries to figure out how to pay for it, we as a House and we as a state should politely decline, drop a copy of the Constitution inside a statement ‘return to sender.’ ”

Much of the rest of Herbert’s speech hit familiar themes, touting the resiliency of Utah’s economy and urging more innovation with scarce education dollars.

Utah’s unemployment rate sits at 4.1 percent, down from 5.4 percent a year ago with some 22,500 new jobs created since the governor’s address last year.

He touted his proposal to add another $4.5 million to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program and another $61.6 million for teacher compensation, and voiced support for school grading.

Utah remains last in the nation in per-pupil spending and continues to have some of the largest class sizes in the country. Herbert proposed an increase of about $100 per pupil in his budget released in December. He also recommended allocating money to school districts in the hope they would use it to expand or create full-day kindergarten programs.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke