By Lane Stilson
After gathering nearly 130,000 signatures, a Salt Lake City-based organization succeeded in placing its $150-million, open-space initiative on this year”s ballot.
Come November, Utahns will decide whether they want to support Initiative 1, a bond intended to fund environmental conservation projects throughout the state. The bond would be paid for through a .05 percent sales tax increase – about 1 cent on a $20 purchase – over the next 10 to 13 years.
According to Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air and Quality Growth, the money would be used for a variety of projects from protecting sources of drinking water to preserving family farms and ranches.
“The intention of this [initiative] is to provide funding for well-justified programs that are proposed by private groups or by governmental entities,” said Mark Clemens, Utah”s chapter coordinator for the Sierra Club, which supports the initiative.
Because Utah”s population is expected to increase by 1 million people in the next 15 years, environmental groups like the Sierra Club say it”s necessary to prepare now.
Clemens said the need for this initiative arose from Utah”s budget crunches in recent years. Since 2000, the LeRay McAllister fund, established to preserve open spaces, has been reduced from $3 million to $800,000 – a 74 percent cut.
Environmental organizations have lobbied for increased conservation funding, but have seen little success, so they decided to bypass the legislature altogether with a petition.
However, members of the Utah Taxpayers Association, a privately funded group that advocates lower taxes and sound tax policy, oppose the measure for many reasons.
Mike Jerman, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said one of his organization”s main concerns is the tax and debt increase.
“Utah”s tax and fee burden is already third highest in the country,” he said. “This would add another $15 million per year.”
The increased debt would cost the state approximately $45 million in interest alone, bringing the bond”s total to nearly $195 million, Jerman said. According to him, that”s $195 million of unnecessary spending considering existing conservation efforts are already in place.
The state and federal government own approximately 78 percent of the state, and most of it is protected from development, Jerman said. Also, the state already spends about $200 million per year to improve air and water quality; fund, manage and build state parks; and protect and promote wildlife, he said.
Jerman argued that open-space issues should be dealt with at the local level, not at the state level. Because rural areas already have a lot of open space, urban areas such as the Wasatch Front would be the main benefactors of the initiative, he said. Instead, cities that want to preserve open spaces should do so on their own dime.
However, Amanda Smith, president of Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air and Quality Growth, said the initiative extends beyond open-space issues.
“This is really about protecting our clean water and clean air,” she said. “Those things don”t know municipal boundaries. If you”re going to clean up rivers and streams and lakes, they cross through many areas.”
Smith said many local governments don”t have the tax base necessary to fund such conservation plans. For example, a watershed project in Sevier County had the full support of local government bodies, but cost nearly $7 million, a sum too large for the county, Smith said.
Smith said the initiative also benefits smaller cities, not just ones along the Wasatch Front. In the initiative, $30 million has been allocated for community projects which smaller communities can tap into for needs in their community, such as recreational facilities, museums, parks and trails.
However, Jerman said just as urban open space is a local issue, community projects are also a matter of local concern.
“Basically, Initiative 1 would require that taxpayers in Panguitch pay for open-space preservation in Salt Lake County and would require Salt Lake County taxpayers to pay for swimming pools in Panguitch,” he said. “That”s just a dumb idea.”
The Taxpayers Association finds such lack of specificity in Initiative 1 disconcerting. Most bonds detail the exact purposes of the money; however, Initiative 1 only outlines a general budget. Based on that budget, the Quality Growth Commission – an appointed board – would administer the funds by approving or denying applications from local governments.
Utahns for Clean Water said the commission already administers the McAllister fund and would not be a problem. The Taxpayers Association said the initiative “bypasses normal appropriations procedure in which the Legislature and the governor determine how tax dollars should be spent” and gives a state bureaucracy too much control over public funds.
Despite the opposition, Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air and Quality Growth presses forward.
“We believe that this is something Utahns really care about; something they”re willing to pay what we”re asking for,” Smith said. “We”re cautiously optimistic.”
For more information regarding both sides of the issue, visit www.utahtaxpayers.org; www.utahlands2004.org