In the ongoing discussions about clean air in Utah and what it might cost for Utah to oversee the effort to obtain it, Amanda Smith, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Director and her subordinate, Utah Department of Air Quality (DAQ) Director Bryce Byrd, appeared on Friday to the legislative committee discussion on appropriations planning and oversight. The purpose of this effort was to allow policymakers to determine base budget allocations for Utah’s environmental quality. The stakes were high and the room was packed.
While Byrd was testifying and taking questions, Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) took the opportunity to ask him about budget allocation priorities. “I think that we need to make some fundamental changes in the way we do things around here… and as we speak about budgets and a Utah solution, I wonder if your department would feel comfortable in allowing local communities to build together to create more regulations which are more in tune to local communities as opposed to giant, statewide regulations. Being a small government guy the way I am…” he then paused for a reaction which sent Representative Mike Noel (Republican – Kanab) into a theatrical coughing fit.
“I recognize,” continued Dabakis, “that the solution for clean air in the Salt Lake Valley is different than what it is in my esteemed colleague Representative Noel’s [district]. To have one standard applied across the board really isn’t a Utah standard, it’s a federal standard, and I would hope that we can come to the point where we say to our local communities, just as we plead every day here to be torn away from the yoke of the federal government, I would hope that entities and political subdivisions around the state could cut themselves from the yoke of state regulations so that they would be free to innovate whatever regulations with whatever revenue sources they need to solve their problem.”
Dabakis continued, “It is our state regulations that cause a lot of the problems that we’re dealing with because we are so insistant that everything be dictated by the mighty state capitol.” In that sentence, Senator Dabakis had used Tea Party rhetoric and passion in an effort to enlist support for more local control within the state. Addressing Byrd, Dabakis concluded by asking, “I would be interested to hear your thoughts on local control put in the context of funding.”
Utah Democratic leaders in the Salt Lake Valley have been using the same message, which is that they need the state to allow them to do whatever it takes to clear the air.
Byrd conceded that as part of his department’s statutory authority, it is “encouraged to support local efforts and provide the technical basis, and that’s a good service that we provide. So currently in the statute, local governments can already adopt in the rules that the Air Quality Board has promulgated and also be supported by the efforts that we do.” In the midst of parsing that statement, Dabakis asked for clarification, “Do I misunderstand that? So local communities can band together and make greater regulations than the minimum federal standards, or not?”
Byrd replied, “The one provision that limits us to meeting the federal standard and no more is, really that’s a misnomer as well. That current statute allows us to do that if we make a finding that it’s necessary to protect public health. Our biggest challenge has been with a technical foundation.” Byrd went on to describe the limitations of his department in providing technical assistance or scientific evidence that would assist in better decision making at any level. He insisted that his department enlists the efforts of local governments to complete his department’s objectives. “We do only have seven ‘minor source’ inspectors that cover over 2000 sources in the state, cover every fugitive dust issue in the state, to cover every open burning issue in the state and they are stretched.”
Smith picked up that theme. “37% of our base budget consists of federal funds,” said Smith, “which have not gone up, but the additional [federal] regulations and workload continues to go up.” When asked what her department would do if the federal allocations were cut, she responded by explaining that, “Across the board cuts would be far easier to manage, but the federal funding is connected to delegated programs. We have no certainty in what program grants will be reduced or which programs will be cut.”
Given the intricacies of their testimony and the pressure on their department, several of the legislators in attendance were hard-pressed to make any further substantive moves before additional negotiations can be completed.