This year’s Ogden Marathon, run on May 20 in a haze of wildfire smoke, served as a shockingly-early-in-the-year reminder that air pollution hurts our health and well-being, with the harshest impacts on our children and other vulnerable populations. Air pollution hurts our economy, too: A recent study led by scientists at BYU and the University of Utah estimated annual costs of $1 to $3 billion. But our Legislature seems to be hamstrung, so it’s up to citizens to take action.
That’s why Clean the Darn Air, a grassroots group, is working to put a clean air and climate measure on the 2024 ballot. We need your help in many ways: spreading the word, donating a few dollars or volunteering to collect signatures this summer.
But first: If you think ballot measures in Utah are a lost cause, here’s proof that they can have a positive impact.
Start by looking at medical marijuana. Read Robert Gehrke’s column about Hestevan Hennessy, who suffered from cerebral palsy but found relief in medical marijuana. As Gehrke writes, Hestevan also found relief in Utah’s ballot measure process: “After years of frustration at the legislative level, in 2018, 53% of Utahns voted in favor of a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana. And while the Legislature later rewrote the initiative, the end result was that the Hennesys and thousands of families like them would no longer have to break the law in order to get relief.”
Next, consider Medicaid expansion. The storyline is remarkably similar: years of frustration in the Legislature, followed by a ballot measure that passed (also in 2018, also with 53% of the vote), followed by a legislative re-write, followed by implementation of a plan that supporters of the ballot measure described as “transformative,” with benefits for tens of thousands of Utah families.
Did the Legislature modify these voter-approved ballot measures? Yes.
But are supporters of these issues way ahead of where they would have been if they hadn’t pushed a ballot measure? Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes.
What these examples suggest is a dance: the clumsy, inevitable dance between the two entities — the Legislature and the people — that are designated by our state constitution as sharing “the Legislative power of the State.”
Does the Legislature sometimes step on the toes of the people? Absolutely.
But the people sometimes step on the toes of the Legislature, too, most recently with the amazing referendum effort that torpedoed the Legislature’s 2019 tax reform effort that tried to raise the sales tax rate on groceries. (Speaking of which, our Clean The Darn Air policy would completely eliminate the state sales tax on groceries: our proposal is to “tax pollution instead of potatoes and use the money that’s left over to clean the darn air.” Our measure would be an alternative to the state Legislature’s convoluted effort to eliminate the sales tax on groceries if voters agree to weaken the education funding guarantees in the state constitution.)
“But,” we hear you say, “what about redistricting?” Fair enough: 50.3% of Utah voters — including the two of us — voted in favor of the Better Boundaries ballot measure in 2018, and the Legislature arguably squashed our toes by gerrymandering districts after the 2020 Census. But the Legislature argues that we squashed their toes because the state constitution gives the power to “divide the state into [districts]” to the state Legislature, and not to the people. There’s an ongoing lawsuit about it, and ultimately the courts will decide who stepped on whose toes.
No matter what happens, though, the dance between the people and the Legislature will continue. Call it the Legislative Tango. And remember: it takes two to tango. So stop sitting on your hands, check out CleanTheDarnAir.org, and come join us on the dance floor. The music won’t stop unless we let it.
Yoram Bauman and David Carrier are volunteers who have each collected over 1,000 signatures for the Clean The Darn Air initiative.