Gov. Cox appointed a Democratic physician to the Utah Air Quality Board. GOP lawmakers said ‘no.’

Salt Lake County Council member Suzanne Harrison’s nomination failed on a tie vote on Tuesday, with three of the four Republican committee members voting against her.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Suzanne Harrison makes remarks after being sworn in as Salt Lake County Council member for At-Large B at the council chambers in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

A legislative committee failed to advance Gov. Spencer Cox’s nomination of Democratic Salt Lake County Council member Suzanne Harrison to a slot on the Utah Air Quality Board on Tuesday. The no votes from Senate Republicans appeared to be motivated by a measure of political payback and worries Harrison’s environmental positions were out of sync with the GOP-dominated Utah Legislature.

Harrison, a physician and former state lawmaker, was tapped by Cox to fill one of two seats on the nine-member board designated for a government representative. She was nominated to replace Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, whose term expired last month. The board is the state’s primary source of air quality policy and has broad authority to enact rules and regulations.

Republicans on the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Confirmation Committee attacked Harrison for her votes against their environmental-related legislation while a member of the Legislature and for her position on environmental issues.

Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, was upset about Harrison’s support for legislation that would have penalized Utahns who drive cars that did not use cleaner-burning Tier 3 gasoline, suggesting some pollutants are beneficial to plants.

“All of us want the cleanest air possible. Perfect air would be great. We do need CO2 in the air for plants to grow,” Owens said.

Harrison responded that she would never support a ban on vehicles that did not use Tier 3 gasoline because it’s unrealistic to mandate that lower-income Utahns buy a new car.

“I supported a stimulus bill to help swap out those older, more polluting vehicles to newer Tier 3 vehicles. That’s the approach I prefer rather than some sort of penalty,” Harrison said.

Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, said Harrison’s vote against his legislation to extend tax breaks to refineries to hasten their production of cleaner-burning gasoline in Utah showed she “wasn’t a team player.”

“I see that she is playing party lines. We’re either all on the team together or not,” Winterton said.

Harrison responded that she voted no because one of the refineries that had benefited from the tax breaks was not making any measurable efforts to convert to the cleaner fuel while others had.

“I had concerns about continuing tax breaks if the work wasn’t being done to make Tier 3 gas. That was the reason for my no vote,” Harison said.

Tuesday’s committee vote on Harrison’s nomination was a 3-3 tie. Republican Sens. Owens, Winterton and Keith Grover voted against forwarding Harrison’s appointment to the full Senate. Republican Chair Sen. Scott Sandall voted with Democratic Sens. Nate Blouin and Jen Plumb in favor of the nomination.

It’s not clear whether Senate rules would allow for Harrison’s nomination to be revived.

After the vote, Harrison said she appreciated Cox’s nomination, but she was “disheartened to see this process devolve into a Washington, DC-style divisive partisan battle.”

“I am disappointed by this unprecedented outcome. This is the first instance of a Utah Senate committee failing to support a Governor’s nomination to the Air Quality Board.

“By statute, the Air Quality Board members are required to have a variety of industry, governmental, and other backgrounds and expertise, and the statute clearly requires that each member of the board be knowledgeable in air pollution matters. My expertise as a practicing medical doctor, experience in the Utah Legislature and the Salt Lake County Council, and my years of service as the co-chair of the Utah Legislature’s bipartisan Clean Air Caucus qualify me to serve on this board,” she said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the governor said Cox was traveling and unavailable to respond to the committee vote.

The Utah Democratic Party slammed the GOP-controlled committee for not advancing Harrison’s nomination.

“Gov. Cox nominated (council member) Harrison for a reason: her experience and expertise would add a valuable perspective to the air quality board. It was unfortunate to see her nomination voted down because a few legislators decided to prioritize petty partisan grievances,” a spokesperson told The Tribune.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Owens took time to assure his fellow committee members that party politics did not play into his decision to vote against Harrison.

“If it came off that way, I apologize. I honor the governor’s appointments. This is the first time I’ve ever voted against one of those appointments. I have nothing but respect for Dr. Harrison and her accomplishments, her knowledge, but I had to vote what my heart says,” Owens said.

Harrison was elected to terms in the Utah House in 2018 and 2020. During the 2021 redistricting process, her Draper legislative district was dissolved, and she was moved into a new heavily-Republican district with GOP Rep. Jeff Stenquist.

In 2022, Harrison ran for a seat on the Salt Lake County Council instead of a third term in the Legislature. She handily defeated Republican incumbent Richard Snelgrove by nearly 10 points.

Shortly after defeating Harrison’s nomination, the committee voted in favor of Republican Uinta County Commissioner Sonja Norton’s nomination to fill the remaining term of former Duchensne County Commissioner Gregory Todd, who Cox named his energy advisor and Director of the Utah Office of Energy Development in August.

There’s one other spot on the Air Quality Board that Cox has not filled. A seat reserved for a representative of an environmental organization has been vacant since September 2022.