Gov. Gary Herbert is urging Utah lawmakers to make an unprecedented investment in air quality, advising them to budget $100 million this year on projects to clean up the skies.
The budget recommendation rolled out earlier this month states that the one-time funding could, for instance, support efforts to replace wood-burning stoves or add more electric car charging stations.
"This is significantly more than we've had in the past," Kristen Cox, executive director of the state's management and budget office, said. "We really thought we didn't want to sprinkle around our resources. This is such a top priority."
For comparison, Cox said, the state’s budget plan last year included about $850,000 for air quality projects.
The governor’s budget book doesn’t give an exact breakdown for spending the $100 million but does list a few ideas. For instance, some money could fuel a wood stove exchange program that helps people pay for cleaner-burning fireplaces.
Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, or UCAIR, said smoke from wood burning accounts for about 21 percent of particulate matter pollution in the Salt Lake Valley. And while some people will do whatever it takes to lessen emissions, others need a little nudge, he said.
“That’s what something like an exchange program does," he said. “It helps them save money and make their lives more convenient.”
In the same vein, UCAIR has also helped people switch from gas- to electric-powered snowblowers, Carter said.
The governor’s proposed funding also could go toward eco-friendly swaps for construction equipment, locomotives and heavy-duty trucks, according to his budget documents. And, Herbert wants the state government to move toward a statewide teleworking program that could take cars off the road and reduce vehicle emissions, one of the main culprits in the Wasatch Front inversions.
Rep. Stewart Barlow, who heads the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee, said he agrees with investing in air-quality research. But lawmakers should exercise caution in spending surplus money this year, said Barlow, who believes the economy is headed toward a slowdown.
“I’m not sure, for the risk of an economic downturn, that I would commit a lot of significant monies to new projects at this time,” Barlow, R-Fruit Heights, said.
Researchers have linked the poor air quality to serious and even deadly health problems; a new University of Utah study found air pollution was associated with an increased risk of miscarriage.
And state Sen.-elect Kathleen Riebe, a Democrat who lives in Cottonwood Heights, said the inversions can affect many other aspects of daily life.
“Clean air is becoming really not only a health issue, but it’s also a financial issue,” she said. “I mean, if kids can’t come to school, we’re paying for a teacher to be there and not teaching them. If people can’t go to work because they can’t breathe, they’re missing work as well.”
Carter said Utah has been moving in the right direction on air quality. From 2002 to 2017, statewide emissions declined by 38 percent overall and 53 percent per capita, according to Herbert’s budget book. And last year, Herbert and the Utah Division of Air Quality announced their goal of cutting statewide per-person emissions by a quarter by 2026.
Cox said she has no crystal ball to predict exactly how a $100 million allocation would improve Utah’s air quality, assuming the Legislature follows Herbert’s recommendation to set aside the funding. The state wouldn’t have to use up the whole amount in the first year and could carry the money forward as it ramps up air-quality projects, she added.
But Cox said government dollars will go only so far, and Utahns will have to pitch in, too.
“While we’re out doing our part in government," she said, “we need the citizens to continue to do their part and make good choices.”
Herbert wants the state to begin crafting action plans for bad air days, when state employees might opt to work from home or commute on public transit. With the state taking the lead, private businesses might follow suit and ask their employees to telecommute on particularly hazy days, his budget documents state.
Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.