Would Utahns vote for a carbon tax? Initiative campaign aiming for the 2020 ballot holds obligatory town halls.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joey Cauceglia, Bob Cieri, Dave Carrier, and Yoram Bauman of Clean The Darn Air listen to a question from Gwen Springmeyer during a public hearing on its initiative petition for a carbon tax in Salt Lake City on Wednesday May 8, 2019.

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, a campaign calling itself Clean the Darn Air held a series of town halls throughout Utah as one of several legally required steps toward placing the question of a carbon tax on the 2020 ballot.

And while their Salt Lake City event — held Wednesday at the Anderson-Foothill library branch — drew a small group of only four attendees, it still produced a range of feedback questioning the specific structure of Clean the Darn Air’s proposal, the validity of the scientific consensus on climate change, and whether Utah has the political appetite for placing a progressive, climate-conscious price tag on carbon emissions.

“If the people’s republic of Washington declined to support a referendum, how do you think the sate of Utah could approve one?” Bob Springmeyer asked, referring to a similar campaign in Washington state that failed last November.

Yoram Bauman, a co-founder of Clean the Darn Air who also worked on the Washington initiative, responded that the campaign hopes to reach Utahns who are worried about air quality — a perennial issue in the the state, particularly along the Wasatch Front — and who see a carbon tax as a moderate, or even conservative, approach to the issue of climate change.

“We think we have a chance to get Republican support for this,” Bauman said. “We think this is a small-government, market-based approach to clean air and climate issues.”

Under Clean the Darn Air’s proposal, Utah would impose an $11 tax on each metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions. That tax would create incentives for consumers to reduce use of fossil fuels, the campaign argues, while also generating revenue that can be targeted by the state for clean-air initiatives, like trade-in programs for wood-burning stoves, gas-powered tools and diesel-engine fleets.

The carbon tax also would be bundled with an elimination of the sales tax on food and an expansion of earned income tax credits, mitigating the financial effect on low- and middle-income taxpayers.

“Instead of taxing potatoes,” Bauman said, “we’re going to be taxing pollution.”

Several countries and the state of California have placed financial penalties on carbon, either through taxes, cap-and-trade programs or other economic initiatives. And in September, a United Nations scientific panel issued a landmark report on the dangers of climate change, finding carbon pricing to be a central and necessary tool for slowing the rise in global temperatures.

Earlier this year, a Utah lawmaker sponsored legislation to create a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. The bill received a House Revenue and Taxation Committee hearing in the final days of the 2019 session and failed to advance to the full House, but the committee chairman suggested the topic be added to a broader discussion of tax reform planned for the summer months.

“I greatly appreciate what you’ve done," Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber, told Salt Lake City Democrat and bill sponsor Joel Briscoe at the time. “But I, too, think that we’ve been tasked — or taxed — with, through the interim, working on another big lift for this committee. And I think that this [bill] would be appropriate to add to that list.”

Three ballot initiatives qualified for the 2018 election and all three were ultimately approved by voters. But two of those laws — legalizing medical marijuana and expanding Medicaid — were subsequently rejected by Utah lawmakers in favor of more restrictive alternatives, and the third initiative, an anti-gerrymandering proposal, is expected to face legislative scrutiny ahead of the next round of redistricting.

To qualify for the ballot, Clean the Darn Air must collect roughly 115,000 voter signatures, with a proportional distribution in at least 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts. And because of recent changes to the initiative process, a successful ballot initiative approved by voters in November 2020 would be delayed from taking legal effect to allow the Legislature to amend, replace or repeal the law.

Micah Turner, a Draper resident who attended Wednesday’s meeting, told Clean the Darn Air representatives that while he distrusts the scientific consensus and media reporting regarding climate change and opposes a carbon tax, he also views the ballot initiative process as invalid in that it bypasses elected, legislative bodies.

“[Direct] democracy is not legal in the United States,” he said. “Because you can’t hold it accountable.”

Bauman said the town halls can be seen as a procedural hoop to jump through, but that he has greater respect for that part of the initiative process now that he has been through it. Other meetings were held in Price, Nephi, Duchesne, Provo, Springdale, and Logan, and Bauman said campaign representatives were able to meet with a broad range of constituents, from coal miners to university professors and from individuals who view climate change as a hoax to those who believe to be an imminent threat.

Bauman also said there is value in Utah residents having a conversation about carbon taxing as a potential check against air pollution and climate change, independent of Clean the Darn Air’s likelihood of success.

“Nobody expects us to get on the ballot, and if we get on the ballot nobody expects us to win,” he said. "Does that make us an underdog? I guess it does."

With the town halls completed, the campaign’s next steps are to submit a finalized proposal to the state and then begin the process fo collecting signatures. Asked about the difficulty, and cost, of signature collection, Bauman said the campaign has roughly $8,000 in the bank, but is working on setting up campaign chapters throughout the state and recruiting supporters to help with the canvassing effort.

“We’re excited about taking a swing at the ball,” Bauman said. “Our belief is that when we stand on a street corner, or at a Fourth of July parade, or outside a state liquor store with a sign that says ‘Utah Voters, sign here to clean the darn air,' we think that people will laugh. And then then they’ll come and say ‘Yeah, I want to do that,’ and they’ll sign."