Although Utah’s budget is still being put together, lawmakers already have decided that giving a $1.7 million fee break to EnergySolutions is a priority.
Senators on Tuesday voted 21-7 to approve HB169, which lets the low-level radioactive waste company off the hook for paying the tab for state inspections.
The legislation already passed the House and now heads to the governor, who office said he will study it carefully before deciding whether to sign it.
Supporters of the bill say it’s needed to help the Tooele County company remain competitive — an argument disputed by critics who point out it is one of the few such licensed facilities in the country.
EnergySolutions was the single largest donor to sitting lawmakers’ campaigns last year, pouring in $67,700.
Feb. 28: Analysis: The Utah Lawmakers who approved a $1.7 million fee break for EnergySolutions received thousands in campaign contributions
A bill to grant a $1.7 million break on annual state fees for EnergySolutions, a company that handles low-level radioactive waste, is very much alive in the waning days of the Legislature as lawmakers weigh priorities about which measures to fund and which to set aside.
House Bill 169 sailed through the House and its first Senate floor vote, and it awaits final action.
EnergySolutions is one of the Legislature’s biggest campaign contributors, so The Salt Lake Tribune decided to crunch the numbers. It found a huge disparity in donations to those who voted yes and the relatively few who voted no.
In the Senate, the 17 members who voted for the fee break received a total of $43,200 from the company during the 2016-18 period — an average of $2,541 each.
That compares with a total of $2,500 in EnergySolutions contributions to the six members who ended up voting no — an average of $417 each.
In the House, 61 members who voted for HB169 had accepted $59,225 in the same period — an average of $971 each.
Not a single one of the 11 members who voted against the bill had received a dime in direct campaign donations from the company.
“There’s no question that donations probably have some influence,” Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Tuesday. “That’s reality.”
Niederhauser, who took $7,000 from EnergySolutions in the 2016-18 span, was absent for the Senate’s first floor vote.
“I’m sure they have some influence,” he said of donations. “Most of the time it’s donations because they support us … in our record, in our voting and our philosophy. It takes money to get elected.”
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, downplayed the role of donations in a lawmaker’s decision-making — including the $9,500 he’s taken from EnergySolutions in the period. He said the big questions are on the policy and whether it is good to have a company to handle radioactive waste in the state.
“If you go out to Tooele County and talk to the residents there, they are pretty adamant about the good that EnergySolutions does for their economy,” Adams said. “I think that’s the issue: Is it a positive effect? And most of us believe that they’ve got a positive effect in managing waste and the economic impact they’ve had on the state.”
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who was among the six voting against HB169, has a policy of accepting no money from corporations or political action committees. All his campaign money comes from individuals, according to his campaign reports.
“It’s ludicrous to say that if somebody is giving you money, it doesn’t affect you,” he said. “Who are these inhuman people?
“But what a deal for EnergySolutions,” Dabakis added. “It gave $67,000 last year, and about that much most years. … Now they’re going to get $1.7 million a year.
“It’s hard to say there’s a direct quid pro quo,” Dabakis said. “It certainly buys proximity. It buys sympathy. It buys time. It buys everything that leads to votes.”
An EnergySolutions spokesman said the company had no comment for this story.
Brigham Young University political scientist David Magleby studies campaign finance. When told of the Tribune analysis, he correctly predicted that the bulk of EnergySolutions’ donations were going to Republicans, who dominate Utah politics and control the Legislature.
Republicans “can drive that process for them, and it’s just a smart — quote, unquote — smart investment for them,” Magleby said.
“This is a classic, what we call, access strategy for an interest group,” he said. “Doing that as a long-term investment both to minimize any negative legislation that might someday be in the works — so it’s an insurance policy in that sense — and when there is a potential positive benefit, like this [fee] break — to have established friendships.
“Having said that, it’s a pretty remarkable benefit that they’re getting,” Magleby said. “It’s pretty shocking.”
Reporter Lee Davidson contributed to this story.