BOUNTIFUL – Sen. Todd Weiler, R-23, addressed topics from air quality and landslides to UTA audits and gas taxes at an open forum Thursday, Aug. 28.
Several dozen Davis County residents attended the evening event sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Questions came from the audience verbally and in written form, and the state senator answered each, providing history and context as well as his personal views.
Air quality today is the cleanest it has been since 1959, he told the audience, “despite everything bad you hear.”
The worst days come with inversions, he noted wryly, days that coincide with the legislative session.
Fifteen bills relating to air quality were addressed this term, he said, more than were considered in the last decade or perhaps two.
A bill Weiler sponsored, S.B. 196, prohibits medical waste incinerators from locating within five miles of residential areas, something he and Rep. Becky Edwards, R-20, worked to pass in light of the concerns over North Salt Lake’s Stericycle.
That business is in the process of moving from the county to Tooele, he said, a process expected to take two years.
Weiler told the audience that 59 percent of valley pollution comes from “your tail pipes and my tail pipes,” and that newer cars and new federal regulations on refineries are helping improve the problem.
Another contributing problem is homes heated with fireplaces. One fireplace fire, he said, can put off as much pollution as 97,000 clean, top-tier furnaces, and state leaders have worked to incentivize conversions to cleaner furnaces.
An increase in the state tax on gasoline is being discussed because the tax has gone up only $.05 a gallon since 1997, he said.
During that same period, the cost of building and maintaining roads has gone up 30 percent, according to Weiler.
People are getting 30 miles to the gallon now, whereas in the past it was more likely to be 12 miles per gallon, he said, another reason taxes are not raising enough money to pay for the state’s road needs.
“We still have woefully inadequate funds to maintain the roads, much less build new ones,” he said. “We’re upside down, we’ve got to do something.”
Weiler talked of the importance of closing the donut holes that prevent people in need from receiving insurance benefits offered through Medicaid.
He said he didn’t criticize Gov. Gary Herbert’s attempts to negotiate with the federal government to make a Healthy Utah plan that fit Utah’s needs and values.
The senator defended the city of North Salt Lake’s actions in light of the recent landslide.
As a former city council member in Woods Cross, he said he has seen that there is only so much a city can do.
“What most people don’t understand is that a city is like a big homeowners’ association,” he said, “they can set some guidelines” such a building code requirements, but if a developer meets those guidelines, they can’t deny building permits.
The recent landslide, he said, was the result of a combination of factors. In his opinion, landscaping decisions by homeowners at the base of the hill, the weight of heavy equipment used by developers at the top of the hill and unusually heavy rains were all contributing factors.
“I’m still looking for what the city did wrong,” he said. “Here’s the deal Р developers are people too, and they’re property owners and we are a property-owner-friendly state.
“The city doesn’t have a few extra million to buy houses Р its budget is already allotted for,” he said. “They’d have to raise everyone’s taxes in North Salt Lake” to pay for new homes.
He called the slide a tragedy, and said it was a miracle no one was killed in the home that was destroyed.
The senator said he had read the recently released audit of the Utah Transit Authority, a special service district he explained is funded by tax dollars specific to the district but is not a state agency.
Though many of the problems uncovered have already been addressed, he said he is asking Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to look into whether the audit found any criminal wrong-doing.
Weiler was appointed to the Utah senate in 2012 when Dan Liljenquist resigned to run for U.S. Senate. Weiler won’t be up for re-election until 2016.