Governor signs ‘not yet perfect’ bill to create the inland port for international trade in northwest Salt Lake City

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Governor Gary Herbert in his Salt Lake City office, Thursday March 8, 2018.

Calling the measure “not yet perfect,” Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation Friday to create an inland port authority in northwest Salt Lake City but said he would call a special session of the Legislature to rework the bill to address concerns of the host city.

In his signing message to legislative leaders, the governor asked them to work with Salt Lake City to resolve four areas of concern the city has raised regarding land-use control, taxing authority, boundaries of the proposed port jurisdiction, and composition of the authority board.

“In my recent meeting with both of you, we all agreed that these are legitimate concerns that we can and should address. They do not, however, rise to the level of a veto,” the governor wrote to Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Greg Hughes.

“Therefore, in signing this legislation into law, I ask you and your respective houses to study each of these issues in the interim so that I can call the legislature into special session in the coming months to modify and improve what is already a good bill for Utah’s continued growth and success.”

The governor’s message cites the need for work on “technical amendments and other minor adjustments” to the inland port bill, SB234, which passed both houses on the session’s second-to-last day.

The city’s issues with the plan are seemingly far more substantial, however, dealing with concerns over retaining local land use and taxing authority within a new state-created port jurisdiction that would overlie 30 square miles of the city’s northwest quadrant.

The Inland Port Authority created under the bill would develop and manage a land-based facility for international trade, of perhaps several hundred acres in size, to process the distribution and transport of goods both inbound to locations throughout the United States and outbound to overseas destinations.

To fund the port’s operations and development, the authority, as provided for in the bill, would have first claim on city, school and county tax revenues within its borders. Its overall 34-square-mile jurisdiction would also take in parts of West Valley City, Magna, and an unincorporated area of Salt Lake County.

The authority, through an appeals process set up in the bill, would be empowered to overrule certain local land-use decisions. That ability, along with its claim on local tax revenue, is of greatest concern to officials in the capital city.

Provisions in the bill exempt much of West Valley City from the same tax claims, based on carve-outs for areas where special taxing districts already exist.

Changes to the bill as it moved through the Legislature vastly expanded the amount of tax revenue the authority could claim from local entities and also diluted the city’s representation on its board.

“As we have discussed, it is important to address four concerns raised by Mayor Jackie Biskupski on behalf of Salt Lake City,” Herbert wrote in his letter to leadership.

The mayor in a statement said although the city was “disappointed” with the governor’s decision, “we appreciate his willingness to call a special session this spring and provide a framework to address our four main issues with the bill.”

The city wants the land-use appeals process set forth in the bill to adhere to state law and city code. It also seeks reductions in the overall size of the authority’s jurisdiction and how much city tax revenue will go to fund it, and equal representation with the state on the authority board.

“We have consistently asked for these changes to the bill and discussed them with the governor,” Biskupski said.

One city councilman, Charlie Luke, took to Twitter to criticize the governor’s decision to sign the bill even with its acknowledged shortcomings.

“Let’s be clear - the time to correct the bill was before it became law,” Luke said.

Proposals for a Utah inland port date back decades. The concept has broad support based on its potential to attract commerce and drive economic development. Disagreements center on how such a facility would be developed and managed. Salt Lake City has its own ambitious plans for economic development in the area and foresaw creating a port facility on its own, perhaps in contract with the state.

Hughes, the driving force behind this year’s plan who is leaving the Legislature at year’s end, said Friday he was open to a special session to enact changes to the bill only if the city would agree to them ahead of time.

“If trying to address those issue is still met with opposition from stakeholders, the city, that does not seem to be a productive way forward,” he said.