Escamilla unveils new clean air policies, receives backing from former rival in Salt Lake City mayoral race

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Luz Escamilla unveils her environmental policy proposals at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Sept. 24, 2019.

Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Luz Escamilla announced Tuesday a number of new environmental policies she says would help clear the air if she’s elected this November.

Escamilla, a state senator and Zions Bank executive, promised to push to offset the city’s power with 100% clean energy by 2023, reduce tailpipe emissions by 25% through improvements to public transit and continue fighting the inland port, a massive distribution hub development planned for the city’s northwest side.

“Living in Rose Park, where some of that air quality really impacts [my family] every single day and our children are there, I know that we have to make very big, bold changes,” she said during a news conference at Jordan River Park.

Former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate David Garbett, an environmental lawyer who ran on a platform that prioritized environmental policy, endorsed Escamilla at the briefing Tuesday, becoming the first primary candidate to express support for one of his past opponents.

“Part of what Salt Lake City needs to accomplish these things is somebody who has experience in administration,” he said. “It’s not enough to have good ideas. It’s not enough to be a fearless advocate yourself. You need to understand how to move large institutions and Luz Escamilla clearly has that experience, she has that training, and she has preparation for us to be able to accomplish these bold and aggressive policies.”

Garbett, who worked for 10 years as a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and generated 16.74% of the votes in August’s primary election, said he believes he and Escamilla have a similar vision for the city moving forward on these issues.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Luz Escamilla unveils her environmental policy proposals at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Sept. 24, 2019. At left is David Garbett, an environmental advocate and former candidate during the mayoral primary, who announced his endorsement of Escamilla.

Polls have shown that poor air quality is among the most pressing issues for residents voting in the mayoral race, and both Escamilla and Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall have attempted to carve out their niche on the issue.

Mendenhall, who got her start in politics through air-quality work, has said that would be among her top issues. She has promised to advocate for more aggressive carbon reduction goals, to use taxpayer dollars to incentivize cleanup of the city’s most polluting buildings, to create a Salt Lake City-based lawn mower and snowblower exchange program and to plant 1,000 new trees on the west side every year to improve air quality, if elected.

Both candidates are now advocating to expedite the city’s current 2030 net 100% renewable energy goals to 2023 — a move Escamilla argued Tuesday will be more cost-effective than fossil fuels but that must be implemented carefully to avoid increases in cost for residents.

When it comes to the inland port — one of the most consequential issues facing the next mayor — both candidates have promised to continue current Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s lawsuit against the creation of the project and the state’s takeover of the land and taxing authority in the area where it will be built.

Escamilla on Tuesday also called for a health impact assessment on the port after activists last week delivered a letter to legislative leadership calling for such a study to evaluate the consequences of the project on public health before it is developed.

“That needs to happen,” she said.

Escamilla said she also wants to implement “structural changes” to water rates, which are currently charged through property taxes. That system is unfair, she said, because many of the largest water users are exempt from those taxes.

She promised to ensure any appointments to the Metropolitan Water District support ending property tax assessment for water delivery, if elected, and said she would initiate more education on water use in the city through educational forums. Those conversations are important “to really understand the real value of water,” she said, “because we live in a desert.”

One of the policies Escamilla announced Tuesday that she believes sets her apart from her opponent is an effort to fast-track net-zero construction by exploring an alternative permitting process that would use incentives to ensure builders move away from natural gas for heating.

She also said she wants to create a program that offers financial assistance to help homeowners retrofit current energy systems to new standards.

“We have now specific plans in terms of having a program that will bring some financing components to help families retrofit their homes because it’s challenging,” she said. “People want to do the right thing, and we need to help them, and I think that’s maybe a little bit of a more specific program.”