- Enrique Limón
- Armed with his signature sandwich board, Yoram Bauman attempts to gather signatures at Liberty Park, following this year’s Days of ’47 Parade.
An economist, a stand-up comic and a clean-air advocate walk into a bar. No, that's not a joke—it describes triple threat Yoram Bauman, one of the co-founders behind Utah's carbon tax ballot initiative, aka the Clean the Darn Air Act.
Recently, on one of Utah's hottest days, Bauman could be seen wearing a bucket hat and a sandwich board proclaiming, "Utah voters, sign here to clean the darn air." He's standing next to the increasingly long line to get into the Red Butte Garden Amphitheater, but he's not there to see a concert or perform one of his comedy routines—he's collecting signatures from registered voters. The following day—Utah's fabled Pioneer Day or Pie and Beer day, depending on who you ask—Bauman walks around Liberty Park doing the same. It's all part of this self-proclaimed "world's first and only stand-up economist's" grassroots effort to collect roughly 115,000 signatures across the state to get the petition on the 2020 ballot.
Bauman isn't alone. He and four others have established a "Clean the Darn Air" campaign that proposes a $12 tax on each metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions in the state. The petition calls for cutting the state sales tax on food and providing income tax credits for lower-earning residents to help offset some of those costs to the consumer, and use money generated from the tax for clean-air programs and rural economic development. Bauman says he hopes this rag-tag group and their idea strikes a certain chord with Utahns—particularly those along the Wasatch Front—all too familiar with the perils of dirty air.
"Our policy is, 'Let's get serious about this,'" Bauman says. "If you want to tackle air quality, if you want to clean the darn air, you're going to have to make some public investments."
Still early on in their campaign, however, the odds appear to be stacked against them. Organizers aren't paying signature gatherers like previous initiatives have done, relying instead on volunteers. In contrast to initiatives from the 2018 election cycle that included well-financed backers like the Utah Jazz' Gail Miller and former Gov. Mike Leavitt, to name a few, the Clean the Darn Air folks "don't have a millionaire that's supporting the campaign," Bauman says. And their signature total through the end of July: more than 5,000.
"We're just a bunch of folks who like these ideas and are excited to get them on the ballot," Bauman says. "You can actually get on the ballot like that."
The environmental economist might be right. In 2016, while living in Washington state, Bauman helped get a similar idea on the state ballot (there it required 350,000 signatures). The initiative, however, only earned about 40% of the vote, not enough to pass. A related initiative also made it on the state's 2018 ballot. But it, too, failed. Bauman's hope this time around is that if Utah's version of the initiative makes it onto the 2020 ballot, it would have enough voter support to pass.
"People in Washington state, like people here, kind of say, 'Well, you can never get on the ballot if you don't have a million dollars,' but it turns out there are a lot of people who care about air quality and a growing number of people who care about climate change," Bauman says. "A lot of those folks are turning out to support the campaign."
For the Utahn who keeps up with state politics, the carbon tax idea might sound familiar. Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, has proposed a carbon tax bill multiple times, including this year. The idea has failed to gain much momentum in the Utah Legislature. The initiative, coincidentally, is similar to Briscoe's proposed legislation, although he's not directly associated with the campaign. He tells City Weekly the group's strategy isn't one he's "willing to embrace at this particular time." But he "wishes them the best."
"Putting a price on carbon is a quick and economic way of sending price signals to people who use fossil fuels that need to make a switch to renewable energy," Briscoe says. "You can do a lot of things to clean the air, but not touch greenhouse gases ... The principal reason [for any clean-air legislation] is to fight climate change. The name of it, 'Clean the Darn Air'—they're selling a carbon tax by telling people, 'Let's clean up the air.' Is that disingenuous or smart? I don't know."
Bauman, though, points out the Legislature approved $29 million this past session to go toward achieving clean air—a step in the right direction. While it was down from the $100 million Gov. Gary Herbert asked for, the move had support from both parties.
"The good news is that everybody breathes," Bauman says. "Lots of folks on both sides of the aisle care about air quality."
Briscoe, meanwhile, says he still plans to pursue carbon tax legislation in the session. "One of my goals is to simply get people to talk about it," he adds.
Whether the carbon tax idea would generate enough momentum to get on the ballot could come down to just that—whether it's been in the public discourse long enough. Briscoe says he thinks groups like Bauman's need "two to three years lead time," and anyone who followed 2018's initiatives, knows the path to success isn't easy.
Christine Stenquist, founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), knows the journey inside and out. For nearly this entire decade, Stenquist lobbied for medical cannabis. Proposition 2 passed, but was soon amended by lawmakers, and her organization is still involved in a lawsuit against the state for making changes in key provisions. Since then, she says she's had a few groups reach out for advice on the initiative process. She tells people they need to not only focus on signatures, but be on Capitol Hill befriending legislators and encouraging people to vote for candidates who support their causes.
"The only way for us [the people] to get equal power is for the legislative body to relinquish some of theirs," Stenquist says. "Why on earth would anybody in power relinquish their power? That's not how this works. If we don't have more balanced voices, the supermajority in this state will continue to control and it won't matter what ballot initiative is presented."
Bauman, who's lived in Utah for two years, says he hasn't forgotten about the 2018 debacle. Despite the Legislature's meddling in medical cannabis and Medicaid expansion, some of it comes down to simple economics—"I think it's obvious they're better off now than if they hadn't run a ballot initiative," he says.
"We understand the Legislature is part of this," Bauman concludes. "It's possible they'll tweak our policy if it wins on the ballot, but you know, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. People want to spend money on cleaning up the air. Rural economic development is important. Eliminating the state sales tax on grocery-store food, I mean how many politicians are going to stand up and be like, 'Nope, there should be a tax on grocery store food.' I don't think that's a winning message."