GOP-run Legislature out to get Salt Lake County?
The timing is, well, troubling.
With the next legislative session less than two months away, Salt Lake County has lost its lead lobbyist, Spencer Stokes, who has accepted a job in Washington, D.C., as incoming U.S. Sen. Mike Lee's chief of staff.
To make matters worse, the county is coming off an election year in which Democratic Mayor Peter Corroon, with his eye on winning the governor's seat, ran an unsuccessful campaign that, at one point, compared GOP Gov. Gary Herbert's administration to that of ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
So if county officials seem a tad anxious about how the Republican-run Legislature will treat them during the upcoming session, then perhaps you'll understand why.
The loss of Stokes "will leave a massive void at Salt Lake County, because Spencer was that good," Republican Councilman Michael Jensen concedes. "I'm nervous going forward about our arrangements and our ability to be represented at a high level."
Could that void leave the county vulnerable to legislative attacks, perhaps as payback for a Corroon campaign that once circulated a memo titled, "Governor for $ale"?
Yes, some politicos say.
Could it make it more difficult to win legislative support for county initiatives, such as the power to impose utility fees, as cities do?
Again, officials say yes.
"Spencer carries a lot of weight at the Legislature," Corroon says. He is "going to be tough to replace."
Stokes has served as the county's lead lobbyist for three years, running interference on issues as weighty as the Real Salt Lake soccer stadium deal, the creation of the Unified Police Department and the long-term preservation of unincorporated townships each battles "royale," Stokes muses.
"There were some perilous times," he says. "We never got everything we wanted. It was all a compromise."
And Utah's most-populous county has work to do during the 2011 session.
For starters, the restaurant tax is under attack, threatening a revenue stream that pays for a hodgepodge of tourism, recreation and cultural programs. The county wants to preserve that money.
It is also looking for money to replace an unpopular police fee in the unincorporated suburbs such as Kearns, Magna and Millcreek. To do that, officials plan to lobby for a franchise fee on utilities.
"I don't believe the county is going to be treated any better or worse than anyone else that wants to bring issues before the Legislature," says House Speaker-elect Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo. "Our decisions are based on the principles of good government, as expressed by the majority."
Although Stokes has a word of caution for the county "Would I encourage Mayor Corroon to spend much time on Capitol Hill this year? Probably not" he doesn't think the Legislature will punish the county.
"There will probably be some message bills to Salt Lake County," he says. "But in the end, calmer legislators will prevail."
What will likely help the county this year is the changing composition of the County Council, Stokes says. The 5-4 Democratic majority is being replaced with a 5-4 Republican one. Several of those GOP council members have connections to legislative leadership.
For example: Incoming Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, lives less than two miles from Councilman Max Burdick. (Burdick is expected to become the next council chairman.) Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, lives in Councilman David Wilde's district. And incoming House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is represented on the council by Republican Steve DeBry.
"One of the advantages, frankly, we have before the Legislature this year is that we do have a Republican majority," Democratic Councilman Randy Horiuchi says. "There are not a lot of good things to be said about a Republican majority, but that is one of them."
Corroon agrees that the soon to be right-leaning council could make a difference. Hopefully, "the desire to punish me will be balanced out by the new Republican council."
But Waddoups insists that the Legislature won't be punitive despite Corroon's comments against the Republican governor during the campaign.
As for the Blagojevich comparison?
"That was just campaign rhetoric," he says. "I don't think anybody is worried about that anymore."
If county officials "are asking for a proposal on a legitimate issue," Waddoups adds, "you will find they will be well-received, whether [those initiatives] come from the mayor, from the council chair or from county employees. I am the president of the Senate. My efforts would be to not let Salt Lake County get preyed upon."
The county is searching for a new lobbyist. It's a challenging task, Jensen says, in the "short window of time" before the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Regardless of whom that lobbyist is and regardless of how hard council Republicans work the county may still find it difficult to win backing for at least one of its major issues: a franchise fee.
The county failed to get that taxing power during the past legislative session. And some officials doubt it will find any more success this year. It's not about retaliation, said lobbyist and former House Speaker Greg Curtis, it's about ideology. The Legislature is reluctant to grant new taxing authority.
"As good as Spencer is," Curtis says, "I don't know if he could have gotten that one through."
Making the county's case
Salt Lake County recently lost its lead lobbyist, Spencer Stokes. Here is a look at the contract lobbyists still on the county's team:
Charles Evans • Charles Evans & Associates
Fred and Christine Finlinson • F2 Co.
Steve Barth • SB Strategies
Source: Salt Lake County