After granting Mayor Ralph Becker and City Hall a first-term honeymoon — call it the calm after the Rocky Anderson storm — the Utah Legislature, it appears, has declared open season on Salt Lake City.
From the opening gun this 2012 session, state lawmakers have been quick to pounce on a string of progressive measures recently passed or pushed by the city.
Becker’s anti-idling law and taxicab standards could get reversed. His attempt to constrict electronic billboards looks doomed. And other bills, either planned or publicly filed, stymie the city’s ability to create historic districts, target its good-landlord law and take private golf courses off the sales-tax rolls.
The challenge to the mayor’s anti-idling ordinance comes as Gov. Gary Herbert just announced air quality as a top priority.
The potentially punitive moves reek of hypocrisy on multiple levels, city leaders say. After all, how can a Legislature that sees federal meddling as an affront be so quick to micromanage a city? And why would lawmakers, worried that gunky inversions drive away business, want to strip one of the only air-quality tools with teeth?
Legislative leaders sidestep the hypocrisy lob, insisting action is necessary to protect the rights of businesses and property owners.
“It’s a fundamental right to advertise your business and it’s important to commerce,” says Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who is running one of two bills that would gut Becker’s e-billboard restrictions. “The sign industry has come to me and I agree with them.”
Details are scarce since half the anti-Salt Lake City bills have yet to be filed. But city officials trying to fend them off say Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, wants to undercut the city’s first-of-its-kind anti-idling ordinance, which, save for some exemptions, outlaws idling beyond two minutes.
Enforcement is complaint-based and first-time violators get warned, not fined. Second offenses cost $160; $210 for a third. Exceptions also are carved out for temperatures below 32 degrees and above 90 degrees.
Negotiations between city officials and Harper reportedly have been fruitless. Harper could not be reached for comment.
A separate effort by Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, to water down the city’s good-landlord initiative also is being challenged by City Hall. Waddoups could not be reached for comment.
“This legislation that will undermine, undo or overturn current ordinances is proposed by legislators who live outside of the city. We have a problem with that,” says Becker spokesman Art Raymond. “We’re much more involved on a daily basis. This is the job we do at City Hall, tending to the concerns of the residents of Salt Lake City. State legislators outside Salt Lake City are not doing that job.”
The remaining bills threatening city initiatives come from lawmakers who live in Coalville and Plain City. With Republican majorities in both houses, legislation upending a Democratic mayor such as Becker typically sees smooth sailing — if the Anderson era at City Hall is any measure.
“The state Legislature has the argument that they are the appropriate oversight since cities are defined as political subdivisions of the state,” Raymond says, noting that Becker — who spent a decade on Capitol Hill — is well aware of the paradigm. “That said, the bigger concern is who is best representing the interests of residents when it comes to creating solutions for local problems? We wish that was more recognized by the Legislature.”