New estimate shows Utah’s Clean the Darn Air carbon tax would generate $170 million

Petitions are set to begin circulating this week for Clean The Darn Air, a ballot initiative aiming to enact a carbon tax in Utah through a public vote in 2020.

Campaign co-founder Yoram Bauman told The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board on Monday that his group is already feeling the pressure of collecting the required signatures to qualify for the ballot — roughly 115,000 statewide with proportionate representation in at least 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts.

But he added that the campaign has the advantage of an early, summer start.

“The reason why past campaigns have spent a million dollars to get on the ballot is that they start in October," Bauman said. "And then they’re signature gathering in Logan in January.”

Rather than hiring professional signature gatherers, Clean The Darn Air plans to rely on volunteer “emissionaries," with the hope of compensating them for their time out of campaign donations. Asked about the state of the initiative’s fundraising, Bauman said Clean The Darn Air does not have a million-dollar donor, and that Utahns appear unsure about how much credibility to give to the grassroots, environmentally-minded campaign.

“We don’t even have a $100,000 donor at the moment,” Bauman said. “We have $10,000 in the bank — less than $10,000 in the bank now that we have our petitions printed.”

Under the initiative’s proposal, a $12 tax would be applied to each metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions in the state. Campaign organizers acknowledge the cost of that tax would inevitably be passed on to consumers, but the initiative includes offsetting cuts to the state sales tax on food and income tax credits for lower-earning Utahns.

Updated fiscal estimates released last week by the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst show the initiative, if successful, generating $40 million in 2022, with the carbon tax bringing in $130 million against a $90 million cut to the state sales tax.

In 2023, the initiative would generate $170 million, with the carbon tax bringing in $510 million while the income tax is cut by $110 million and the sales tax is cut by $230 million.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Bauman estimated that the average Utah household would pay an additional $100 per year in taxes, depending on their income level, utility consumption and fuel use, while low-income Utahns would likely see a net decrease in their total tax burden.

The $170 million would be earmarked for air quality initiatives and rural economic development, with any additional money directed toward tax cuts.

Heather Williamson, Utah director of Americans for Prosperity, said Clean The Darn Air is relying on the same “misguided premise” as other failed carbon tax efforts around the globe. Such efforts drive up costs, she said, while having little effect on fossil fuels consumption.

“People aren’t going to stop heating their homes,” she said. “They’re not going to stop driving to work or school in the morning. In that case, emissions don’t fall but prices still rise.”

Williamson said there’s agreement on the need for a healthy environment. But she pointed to the proliferation of ride-hailing services and electric scooter rentals as an example of market forces responding to the need for alternative forms of transportation.

She also suggested the elimination of subsidies and corporate tax loopholes could be more effective policy, and that carbon taxing could have the adverse effect of making government reliant on emissions to fund public programs.

“If the goal is the raise revenue to help fund investments in renewable energy and then lessen the burden on low-income people,” she said, “then we should do it in a way that doesn’t create systemic dependence on the very thing we’re trying to eliminate.”

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, has sponsored carbon tax legislation in recent years. He said he’s rooting for Clean The Darn Air to succeed, but that he told campaign organizers the initiative is premature.

Recent successful initiatives on medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and political redistricting followed years of debate, including bills on cannabis and Medicaid that passed the Senate and received hearings in the House. But that debate has not happened yet, he said, for carbon pricing.

Briscoe said there’s the potential that failure by Clean The Darn Air could impede future discussion of carbon taxing. But he added that he’s hopeful the campaign can generate interest in the issue.

“Bottom line, I hope they’re going out and getting signatures and getting people to talk about it,” he said.

Of the three ballot initiatives approved by voters in 2018, two were quickly repealed and replaced by lawmakers while the third, an anti-gerrymandering law, remains in state code but is expected to face amendments next year.

Ronan Carrier, a Clean The Darn Air volunteer, said the campaign is aware that lawmakers will likely change or even reject any successful initiative. But she said the effort is still worthwhile.

“Advocates make forward progress and that’s really what we want here,” Carrier said. “We just want any progress to be made.”

Bauman, who describes himself as a Republican, said the carbon tax initiative is rooted in the idea that prices should reflect cost. If people are polluting the air, he said, then there should a higher cost associated with those activities.

But he was also skeptical that a free market would organically solve air pollution and carbon emissions without proactive policy steps.

“Market forces aren’t going to respond unless you have a price signal,” Bauman said. “Markets aren’t magical things that just automatically go in whatever direction you want them to go in. They respond to incentives.”