Yoram Bauman: The Utah Legislature can act to ‘Clean the darn air’

Utah Senate bill would put a tax on carbon to end grocery sales tax and boost transit and development.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Poor air quality, and the State Capitol, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.

How much do Utahns care about clean air? One answer, unbelievably, comes from a failed effort: a campaign by our group, Clean The Darn Air, to put a clean-air-and-climate measure on the November 2020 ballot.

To be blunt, our effort failed because we were a super-grassroots group that didn’t entirely know what we were doing in taking on a giant task: gathering the 120,000 signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot in Utah.

The conventional wisdom was that you needed an experienced political consultant and $1 million to qualify for the ballot. We had the School of Hard Knocks and $10,000. It was only 1% of the money we were told we needed, barely enough to get a website and print up petition packets. Heck, we were such an underwhelming presence that we couldn’t even get an endorsement from the editorial board of The Salt Lake Tribune.

We tried to make the ballot anyway. Two volunteers, both with full-time day jobs, gathered over 5,000 signatures each; a third came close to that number. Other volunteers joined the campaign from all over the state, from Logan to Moab to St. George, and came back from signature-gathering shifts with amazing stories. Stories of people running down the street to sign our petition packets. Stories of getting shepherded around a football tailgate party by a woman who was determined to convince her family and friends to sign. Stories of a young girl — too young to sign the petition, too young to even collect signatures by herself — heading out with her mom to gather signatures outside the Salt Lake Royals stadium.

We ended up with almost 30,000 signatures. That wasn’t enough, but it was a lot. With 1% of the resources, we got almost 25% of the way there. That’s how much Utahns care about clean air.

And we’re not giving up. This year we’re advising Utah state Sen. Derek Kitchen on a related bill, SB187, that would eliminate the unfair state sales tax on groceries, provide $50 million to Utah Transit Authority to make public transportation free and allocate $5 million a year for rural economic development. The bill pays for it all with a modest carbon tax on the fossil fuels that contribute to local air pollution and global climate change.

We say, “Tax pollution instead of potatoes and put the money that’s left over into cleaning the darn air.”

It’s a bill that reflects Utah values and respects Utah pocketbooks, a bill that will improve our families’ health, our economy’s competitiveness and our children’s future. We hope the state Legislature — many of whose members care about air quality and are increasingly concerned about climate change — will give Kitchen’s bill a hearing and will vote it into law.

But if they don’t, our Clean The Darn Air group will be ready to take another swing at the ball by putting a measure on the November 2024 ballot. You can join our effort at DarnAir.org and see for yourself: We’re still a super-grassroots group, but this time we know a lot more about what we’re doing.

Yoram Bauman

Yoram Bauman, Salt Lake City, has a Ph.D. in economics, makes a living as a “stand-up economist,” and is one of the volunteer leaders of Clean The Darn Air (DarnAir.org).