Policy: Economy

Utah lawmakers take up batch of air quality bills

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Measures to clear Utah's murky wintertime skies are working their way through the state Legislature. But with only a week to clinch a final OK from state lawmakers this legislative session, it's unclear how many of them will become law.

"Our representatives and senators are getting the message," said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.

Briscoe said Utah residents are sick of the polluted haze that sets in along the Wasatch front in colder months.

Efforts include a $20 million push for clean-fuel school buses, limits on wood-burning stoves and local sales tax increases to pay for better commuter bus routes.

Many of the proposals have been passed by the House, where they originated, but some have died and others could ultimately be sidelined.

The clean-air initiatives are in jeopardy as lawmakers decide how much money to set aside for a school technology overhaul bill with a proposed $200 million price tag, said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem.

"That's where the problem is," he said.

This winter, skies were clearer overall, but the Wasatch front counted more poor air days. Pollution surpassed federal limits on 31 days, according to the Division of Air Quality.

A group of House Republicans and Democrats focused on air quality unveiled in January a robust package of bills aimed at curbing emissions. Briscoe, one of the group's chairs, said they have been better received than he expected. A handful of the measures cleared the Legislature and are headed for the governor's desk.

But a Senate committee on Thursday derailed a proposal from Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, to let the Division of Air Quality impose restrictions that go further than federal regulations. Edwards and others had argued the state should not be limited by federal restrictions and should be free to seek its own solutions.

"I do feel like it is a big loss for air quality improvements in the state," she said after the committee failed to advance the bill, adding that lawmakers' will to address air quality may have tapered off. "I guess we'll see what happens with the whole slew of bills we started with."

A pending measure would replace wood-burning stoves with natural gas furnaces for 200 homes reliant on them in urban northern Utah if homeowners opt into the program. The proposal comes from Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, who co-chairs the House Clean air Caucus. Senate leaders in recent weeks said they hesitated to restrict wood burning because it would leave some Utah residents without heat.

Cutting down on wood burning is key in curbing pollution, said Bryce Bird, the division director.

The proposal to switch out the stoves for $1.8 million in state money "will make a big difference," he said Thursday, adding that it's now a challenge for inspectors to regulate wood burning with current staff levels.

Also instrumental in cleaning up the air, he said, are pushes to bolster public transportation.

Statewide, counties could raise sales taxes and funnel the extra dollars to transit coffers to pay for more buses, under a bill from Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville.

Running local buses more often and on better routes is "the most impactful" way to keep cars off the roads, Anderson says.

One measure with a $20 million price tag would award grants to school districts that convert their bus fleets to vehicles that run on cleaner-burning fuels. It awaits final approval from the Senate.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called on lawmakers to cut pollution in his 2014 yearly address. Air quality, lawmakers have said, is a top priority this session.

Deborah Burney-Sigman, board president for Breathe Utah, said she sees "new acceptance" among lawmakers in addressing air quality. "Votes of confidence" in public health efforts, she said, "are starting to come in."

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