Legislature seeks to improve air quality, avoid tax hikes
After all-day caucus meetings on Wednesday, leaders of the Utah Legislature emerged to say they see little appetite for raising taxes in the upcoming general session — during an election year — but are anxious to do something to clean up Wasatch Front air.
Bills to improve air quality are expected to rise to the top of the agenda early after the Legislature convenes next month — when smog from winter inversions is on the minds of most Utahns.
But exactly what lawmakers have in mind is unclear.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said House Republicans were supportive Wednesday of “being very proactive very early with air quality” bills and initiatives to show the importance of the topic.
Last session the Legislature passed only one clean-air bill — one aimed at increasing the number of natural-gas vehicle fueling stations and promoting conversion of vehicles to natural gas by allowing the cost to be tacked onto home-heating bills. Critics said the measure will have no significant impact on air quality.
While lawmakers appear anxious to take some action on the clean-air front, they seem loath to vote on any tax bump.
“I didn’t feel any desire from the [House Republican] caucus for any tax increase,” said Dee.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she still expects discussion about raising gasoline taxes. But Dee said he doesn’t see much appetite for taking action.
Similarly, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said his Republican caucus also generally wishes “to avoid tax increases. But I guarantee there’s going to be some discussion on the gas tax this year. There’s a lot of ideas being floated out there about that.”
Utah has not raised the state’s 24.5-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax since 1997, and state and local officials say road maintenance is falling behind.
Also, the nonpartisan Utah Foundation recently issued a report saying that with current taxes, Utah will see an $11.3 billion shortfall over the next 30 years for planned, high-priority highway and mass transit projects. So the Transportation Interim Committee has studied possible ways to cover the expected funding gap.
Counties have already asked the Legislature to permit them to impose a 3 percent local gasoline tax — which would initially raise taxes by about 10 cents a gallon. They want the money for local road maintenance. It would also give the Legislature some political cover in an election year because counties would be the ones raising taxes, while the Legislature would merely allow it by raising tax caps.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, is proposing to raise state gasoline taxes by 1.5 cents a year for five years, for 7.5 cents total. It would split that money between state and local governments — unless the local-option tax also passes, which would trigger provisions to give all the increases in Nielson’s bill to the state.
Leaders in both chambers also said they plan to spend most of the first week of the upcoming session on base budgets for state agencies, a change from the normal routine — so non-budget bills will not receive much committee attention during that time.
Niederhauser said many lawmakers feel the base budgets need more attention, and possible re-prioritization instead of just building on the previous year’s budget. Base budgets usually pass early, and are the foundation upon which lawmakers will build a final budget.
In the final days of the Legislature, lawmakers wrangle over how final bits of available revenue should be spent to add to base budgets.