In what may be his last appointment as a top political leader on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Greg Hughes used his authority to put himself on the board of the controversial new inland port authority.
SB234 — which created the port that has led to an ongoing political drama between Salt Lake City and state leaders, including Hughes — required board appointments by June 1.
His self-appointment to the four-year position answers a question Utah’s political insiders have been asking as Hughes nears his retirement as a state legislator: what will he do between the end of his term this year and an anticipated run for governor in 2020?
“It’s not a surprise in the sense that Greg Hughes is leaving his position, which means he will not be in the public eye as much as he was while speaker of the House,” said Matthew Burbank, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. “On the other hand, this gives him a chance to play a role in public policy.”
Lawmakers moved in March to create an international port on thousands of acres in the northwest portion of Salt Lake City. City leaders say they’re OK with hosting the new port, but the opaque way in which it passed and specifics in the final version of the bill have led to an ongoing dispute.
House members substantially changed and passed SB234 just before 10 p.m. on the eve of the session’s end. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said the final bill contained several poison pills.
In addition to building the shipping port on about a quarter of city land, the bill also made the port’s board the final appeal panel for disputes over land use decisions, and it allows the port to take over all tax-and-spend power in that area.
Salt Lake City leaders were negotiating with Gov. Gary Herbert on changes that could be passed in an anticipated special session last month. But those negotiations broke down after Biskupski read a version of the proposed special session bill, and Herbert never called on legislators to meet because there was no agreement.
Hughes has said the city is looking for too much power over what he says will be an economic powerhouse for the state. He said he was the right choice for the port post because of his insider knowledge about the goals for the project.
“There’s a lot of work to be done. I see the whole inland port and the effort to move it forward, it’s so big, it’s generational,” Hughes said, adding he had no plans to leave the board after he’s no longer a legislator. “A lot of issues will arise that we don’t see today.”
Hughes didn’t speculate on whether such an appointment puts him in a good place for a possible run for governor. Burbank believes he’s found the perfect position.
“What this allows him to do is continue to play an active role in an important public policy issue,” Burbank said. “And maintain connections, keep in contact with people who will be watching this closely and will be influential in the kind of money-raising and discussion that goes on prior to somebody running for governor.”
Biskupski, who didn’t get a direct appointment onto the board in the final bill, found a way to get her preferred candidate on the board.
SB234 said City Councilman James Rogers, whose district includes most of the new port, would be on the board automatically. It also said the chairman of the airport advisory board, Larry Pinnock, would appoint a member.
The mayor instructed Pinnock to appoint Lara Fritts, director of Salt Lake City’s economic development office, according to the mayor’s spokesman, Matthew Rojas.
Rojas said the city continues to talk with lawmakers about potential changes to the bill.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who has been highly critical of the city’s lobbying effort over the bill, will join Hughes at a news conference Tuesday about a “compromise framework” for the port.
Utah Inland Port authority board
Gov. Gary Herbert: Derek Miller, president, Salt Lake Chamber.
Gov. Gary Herbert: Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser: Sen. Don Ipson (four-year term).
House Speaker Greg Hughes: Himself (four-year term).
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams: Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen (two-year term).
Jonathan Hardy, director of housing and community development at the Department of Workforce Services: Sevier County Commissioner Garth “Tooter” Ogden (four-year term).
Airport Advisory Board (Larry Pinnock, as directed by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski): Lara Fritts (four-year term).
City Council: Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers (four-year term).
West Valley City Manager Wayne T. Pyle: Hasn’t made appointment yet (two-year term).
Director of the Utah Department of Transportation: Carlos Braceras (four-year term).
Director of the Salt Lake County office of Regional Economic Development: Stuart Clason (four-year term).