ST. GEORGE — In an effort to address climate change and clean air issues in Utah, Rep. Joel Briscoe of House District 25 recently stated he intends to propose a carbon tax during the 2017 legislative session similar to that enacted in 2008 by British Columbia. While the legislation is still in the drafting phase and unavailable for viewing, the initial reaction from several Southern Utah representatives is that they don’t believe the carbon tax is the right way to go.
Briscoe is the co-founder of the Utah Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus and said that legislation such as this is going to ultimately benefit “our most important bottom line – our children.” However, he said, for some reason no one wants to say “climate change.”
“It’s happening in Utah,” Briscoe said. “Data shows over the last 20 or so years that temperatures in Utah have risen twice as fast. … The state’s meteorologist who works at Utah State University told me, told a group of people and will tell anyone who will ask, that in the future we will have wetter winters. There will be more rain and less snow, and we’ll have hotter, drier summers.”
Putting this on an economic level, Briscoe said, these types of wetter winters will directly impact one of Utah’s top industries: travel and tourism.
“If you want to talk to the management of the ski resorts in Utah, they have all signed on to support various groups in Utah and beyond Utah that support action on climate change,” Briscoe said, “because wetter winters with no snow is a direct threat to the ski industry.”
Briscoe is calling his proposal to address these issues a “carbon fee/dividend.”
“This is a free market approach to helping reduce carbon emissions,” he said. “Rather than using an EPA or regulatory approach, which is you have to put these kinds of scrubbers on your smoke stacks, we say, ‘Look, it’s going to cost more to emit carbon.’”
For the average consumer, this cost would come in the form of increased utility costs and fuel prices. In the state of Washington, a similar initiative was put before voters this year that estimated an approximate 25-cent increase at the pump, an additional 2.5 cents to each kilowatt-hour of coal-fired electricity and 1.25 cents to electricity generated by natural gas.
However, while prices may increase, Briscoe’s bill would also be similar to Washington’s proposed Initiative 732 and British Columbia’s carbon tax in that it would be “revenue neutral,” he said, meaning the tax revenues could be used to offset other taxes, or the money made could be issued back to those Utahns hit hardest by the bill. Additionally, funding from the proposed tax could possibly be used for education or infrastructure initiatives.
In Washington state, the initiative called for a 1 percent cut in sales taxes, annual tax rebates up to $1,500 for almost half a million low-income households and a near elimination of business taxes for manufacturing. British Columbia also used the revenue received from the carbon emitters to cut business taxes, Briscoe said, something which will probably be a part of his draft legislation. He said:
Some of the money will definitely go back to the people. Energy will get somewhat more expensive. … Gail Miller and Jon Huntsman, Jr., can pay a more expensive gas bill to heat their homes, but (for) some people that will be difficult. That will be a struggle, and we’ll make sure that some of this is dividended back to them or returned to them to offset increased costs so that we don’t damage the ability of anyone to heat their home. The goal is not to have a negative impact on people or create a budget crunch in their home.
Besides the consumer impact, the idea of a revenue neutral bill is designed to appeal to political conservatives who are opposed to the idea of increasing the size of government.
However, in a turn of events that came as a surprise to many, despite endorsements for Washington state’s initiative from multiple climate scientists, several environmental groups actually came out in opposition to the initiative, stating they believed the revenue should go directly back into disadvantaged communities and clean energy infrastructure.
This idea of a revenue neutral carbon tax was also not enough to convince Utah’s District 74 Rep. V. Lowry Snow.
Snow was hesitant to speak hypothetically without having viewed the legislation, but he said that someone would have to convince him that offsetting one tax against another would be a net benefit to the average Utahn.
“At first blush, I would not be very excited about imposing that kind of a tax,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the right direction we need to be going. One of my concerns is the burden it places on families that are struggling, trying to make ends meet, that have to use their vehicles, either for transporting family members or for small business. It also imposes a burden on those who have to heat their home.”
Snow, who said he has been involved with clean air issues himself, believes there are many ways to address the issue, but imposing penalties and burdens isn’t the best approach.
“One of the things the government can do is provide some incentives or removing regulation with respect to clean industries and renewable energy sources,” he said.
Rep. John Westwood, District 72, echoed Snow’s sentiments but said he ultimately looks forward to studying the bill.
“We do need to consider initiatives to clean our air,” he said, “but I worry about new taxes, especially on energy. That is already taxed.”
Rep. Walt Brooks, who stepped in as interim District 75 representative when Don Ipson was chosen to fill the Utah Senate vacancy left by Steve Urquhart’s resignation, went so far as to say he was against every tax. He said:
I already think that we have plenty of taxes, and we need to find ways to reduce our taxes. … I often feel that taxes can be a way to put us under some control. And I think the reason why we’ve been such a great place to live in the United States, why we’ve achieved the success we have is because we eliminate control or there wasn’t as much control. So ingenuity and creativity can prosper. I’m always skeptical when I hear new ways to tax us.
Brooks also questioned the claims that climate change is caused by people.
“The earth has been changing its climate since the beginning,” he said. “Science has proven that. This climate change is complicated and very sporadic and it’s hard to measure, so people in power can use that as a tool or mechanism to control their ways or control finances to go into areas that are important to them.”
Rep. Jon Stanard, District 62, told St. George News he believes caution should be exercised when evaluating energy and power generation.
“We have to be careful to balance the need to look for more efficient and environmentally friendly means of power generation, which are developing rapidly, without destroying the carbon based energy system that provides the vast majority of energy and fuel for the world today,” Stanard said, “and most likely a carbon tax would be out of balance for those two sides.”
As a member of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, Stanard added that even though it is hard to comment without seeing the bill, he believes it would have a difficult time passing through that committee, let alone the full Legislature.
In Washington state, voters rejected Initiative 732 in November, a fact Briscoe largely attributed to “two green groups battling each other.”
“I’ve talked to people who are close to that issue,” he said. “I was told the governor of Washington and some environmental groups proposed a cap and trade. And then another group went out and did a citizen’s initiative to get a carbon tax on the ballot. … I don’t see that as a problem in Utah. I don’t see the governor coming out and proposing his own cap and trade or carbon tax.”
Additionally, while Briscoe touts British Columbia as an example, there are disparate reports as to the success of its carbon tax. However, a study by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the University of Ottawa’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainable Prosperity showed a 5 to 15 percent decrease in emissions with “little net impact, either negative or positive, on provincial economic performance.”
Regardless of these other successes and failures, Briscoe said, the important thing is to start the discussion.
“I think it’s important to kick it off and have an open discussion about this issue and put forward a policy proposal to the people who might agree with me that climate change is an issue we need to be dealing with,” he said. “If they don’t like the bill, that’s fine. I’d hate to live in a world where everyone agreed with everyone else all the time. … If you think we need to be dealing with a warming earth and significant changes in climate, then my response to them is, ‘Well, give me your proposal, and let’s talk about the merits and demerits.’”
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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.