Gehrke: Two unlikely partners, Hughes and Dabakis, float a compromise for a Salt Lake City inland port — but is this about policy or politics?

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Robert Gehrke.

Weeks after negotiations blew apart between Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski over plans for an inland port in northwest Salt Lake City, an unlikely pair of outgoing lawmakers is trumpeting a deal that could resolve the Utah capital’s major concerns.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, a Republican, and state Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Democrat, have spent weeks “pounding on each other,” as Dabakis puts it, trying to address the city’s heartburn over the Legislature’s move to essentially take control of a vast swath to build a port that could become a hub for shipping throughout the West.

Now the two plan to stage a news conference Tuesday to unveil a proposal that they think could end the standoff.

Their bipartisan plan would protect some wetlands along the Great Salt Lake, clarify who gets the tax revenue collected on the property, and give the city an opportunity to adjudicate land disputes before developers can take appeals to the Port Authority Board.

It makes clear that the international airport will remain under the city’s wing and not be absorbed into the port project. It also clarifies that any coal shipped into or out of the port would have to be covered.

Of course, Dabakis can’t formally negotiate on behalf of the city (he doesn’t even really represent the inland port area). All he and Hughes can do is float their idea and see if the City Council, the Legislature and the governor go along with it

Dabakis said that, after reading my recent column about how negotiations between the mayor and governor imploded, he believed someone needed to step in, so he and Hughes started talking.

“I watched as the city fumbled the prison, and now I could see no other avenue to getting a reasonable deal [on the port]. It’s clear the city just didn’t have the chops with legislative leaders and the governor to get this thing done,” Dabakis said. “There was just a void … and it’s too desperately important for people in Salt Lake to be cut out of their future.”

Hughes said their “agreement in principle” is the product of the two of them being willing to hash out their concerns and differences, something the speaker added that he has tried to do with the city but has been “completely and totally unsuccessful.”

“It isn’t a stunt,” Hughes said, noting that it will largely be up to Dabakis to try to sell the proposal to the City Council and the mayor. “Jim has got to have some credibility with that community. I just want them to see that this is how it’s supposed to work. … If I can’t get the mayor herself to agree, maybe the rest of the community will see there’s an earnest desire to find some overlap.”

Dabakis believes the city will be receptive.

“I think the council’s going to be on board. I think the mayor’s going to be on board,” he said. “What’s the alternative? Zero on the revenue? Zero environmental protection? Zero say in the zoning and building process? Zero on the airport being kept in the city?”

Personally, I think “zero” is about the chance the mayor will go along with this new proposal.

It does address some of the issues that Biskupski raised with the governor, but comes up well short on others. For example, it still leaves all of the tax revenue in the hands of the port authority; the mayor wanted to limit the authority to 2 percent.

And the port authority’s land appeals board would retain final say in disputes, although it gives the city six months to try to resolve them before the board can step in.

The mayor is also likely to see the negotiations between Hughes and Dabakis as a clear usurpation of her role — and that makes the political calculus of this move fascinating.

Hughes is in his last year in the House and is one of a handful of candidates who may run for governor in 2020. Appearing to compromise on the port could ease the resentment Salt Lake City voters harbor over the Legislature’s land grab.

It also cuts Biskupski out of the talks. Why negotiate with the mayor when there’s already an agreement? As a result, it could strip away any of the mayor’s remaining leverage.

Dabakis, who is retiring from the Senate at year’s end, has had his eye on the mayor’s seat for a while. At the end of the legislative session, he conducted a poll that showed him the leading contender in a field of potential candidates.

Stepping into the void after talks collapsed undermines Biskupski and makes Dabakis look like a politician who can get the deal done to protect the city.

“We just can’t have this where we’re getting as dysfunctional as Washington,” Dabakis said. “It shouldn’t be about personalities.”