Commentary: Let’s clean the darn air by taxing pollution instead of potatoes

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Smoke from wildfires burning across the western U.S. is worsening air conditions on the Wasatch Front, as seen in downtown Salt Lake City Wednesday, September 6, 2017.

Another week, another front-page headline warning about the dangers of local air pollution, this time a doctors’ report that poor air quality in and around Salt Lake City leads to over 150,000 lost days of work and school per year and almost 100 deaths.

We all care about the air we breathe but, as individuals with busy lives, what can we do? One thing we can — and certainly should — do is support the groups that are lobbying the Utah Legislature for action.

But we can do more, and that’s why we’ve started a grassroots effort to put a clean-air-and-climate measure on the 2020 ballot. We invite you to join us.

Our campaign is pretty simple, starting with our name: Clean The Darn Air.

The motivation for our campaign is pretty simple, too. Our state Constitution provides for a ballot measure option when the Legislature goes awry, and the past year certainly seems to fit the bill: a billion dollar surplus and a push from Gov. Gary Herbert to invest $100 million as a “down payment” on improving air quality, but a Legislature that allocated only $29 million — a down payment on the down payment — while somehow finding $110 million on the last day of the session for a parking garage and other improvements to the state Capitol.

Our ballot measure is going to provide the full $100 million that Herbert requested for air quality investments: money for cleaner school buses and industrial equipment, money to encourage homeowners to switch from gas-powered leaf-blowers and snow-blowers to electric, money to reduce emissions from the small handful of sources — freight switcher locomotives, homes that are still using wood stoves, cars that are more than 15 years old — that contribute disproportionately to our pollution problems. We can and should invest $100 million a year, year after year, until we Clean The Darn Air

And that’s not all. Our proposal also invests $50 million a year in rural economic development, provides a 20% state-level match of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working families, expands the Retirement Tax Credit and eliminates the state portion of the sales tax on grocery store food.

Where does the money for all this come from? It comes from a modest tax on fossil fuels, the number one source of our local air pollution problems and also the main contributor to global warming. That tax — about 11 cents per gallon of gasoline, about 1 cent per kilowatt-hour of coal-fired electricity — will fund our proposal, and it will directly help the push for sustainability by providing an economic incentive for all of us to be greener.

In short: We’re going to tax pollution instead of potatoes, and we’re going to put the money that’s left over into improving local air quality and promoting rural economic development. It’s a simple idea, it’s a good idea, and it’s a fundamentally conservative idea. Even Milton Friedman advocated for pollution taxes. Our proposal is philosophically similar to policies that have reduced emissions in British Columbia and to the national “fee-and-dividend “ proposal that was endorsed by 27 Nobel-prize-winning economists.

We’ll begin gathering signatures at the end of this month, and we invite you to join one of the chapters we have around the state. Or you can sit around and wait for the next headline about melting glaciers, declining rural economies and local air pollution leading to lung cancer and miscarriages.

Yoram Bauman

David Carrier

Yoram Bauman, Ph.D., an economist who makes a living doing stand-up comedy about economics and politics. David Carrier is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah. They are two of the five co-founders of the Clean The Darn Air campaign: www.CleanTheDarnAir.org.