Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and members of the City Council lobbied on different sides of the inland port bill passed Wednesday in a special session of the state Legislature — a law that will have a huge impact on future development in about a quarter of the city’s land mass.
Council members took to Capitol Hill and encouraged lawmakers to greenlight changes to the law governing the proposed landlocked trade and distribution hub in northwest Salt Lake City, saying while far from perfect, the amended version marked a big improvement over the legislation approved in March. Meanwhile, the mayor made a last-ditch effort to persuade lawmakers to ditch the law altogether and start over from scratch.
As seemed inevitable even before Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday announced the special session, the amended bill negotiated behind closed doors was approved, clearing the way for a new port authority board to begin efforts to create what is envisioned as a massive network of roads, rail and warehouses in coming years.
“This is estimated to be probably the largest economic development initiative that’s ever moved forward in the state of Utah,” Sen. Jerry Stevenson, a Layton Republican who sponsored the bill, said shortly before the Senate approved it.
Any semblance of a united front among Salt Lake City leaders fractured during closed-door compromise negotiations with the state in the months between the initial approval of the inland port bill — after almost no debate on the night before the Legislature’s adjournment in March — and Wednesday’s amended bill.
That divide was on full display at the Capitol on Wednesday, when Biskupski unsuccessfully pleaded with lawmakers to repeal the law and scrap the amended legislation.
“There’s a lot of window dressing on the bill,” Biskupski said. “A real lack of accountability.”
“The community I represent has been desperately asking for a very transparent and open process ... which we have not been granted,” she added. “It is very difficult to have a strong community engagement process in this setting.”
The mayor’s comments represented her return to the negotiating table after six weeks of absence, during which she stayed out of talks with lawmakers, City Council members and the governor. The mayor had even blocked council members from obtaining information from professional staff.
Several members of the legislative committee that held the only hearing on the bill peppered Biskupski with questions over her lack of involvement in compromise discussions.
“I view this as a project we should all work together on to make sure it’s successful," said Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper. He said it seemed that the city council tried “to work and find something and find solutions rather than just be a stick in the mud and just say I’m not going to participate.”
The mayor’s approach — to withdraw from the talks entirely — “I view that as maybe a little disheartening or disingenuous,” Schultz said.
Lawmakers later voted overwhelmingly to approve changes on taxes, land use appeals, environmental protections and the boundaries after about two hours of deliberations during a short public hearing and debate on the House and Senate floors.
The amendments provide, among other things, that cities will be reimbursed for services in the port authority jurisdiction, the boundaries of which were reduced and environmentally sensitive wetlands were removed.
Officials from a group that represents cities said they were wary that the state would take away local control over land use and tax collection authority. While still against the state’s overreach, the Utah League of Cities and Towns said the compromise was better than the initial law.
Vocal legislative critic Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, gave a similar, imperfect-but-improved verdict.
“I say shame on the state for not having this process better up to now,” Dabakis said. “But I say good job for getting it this far along. I hope that we’ll pass this and then continue to make changes as we go along.”
Dabakis, who voted for the bill Wednesday, has been credited with helping jump-start the negotiations between House Speaker Greg Hughes, one of the port’s biggest backers on Capitol Hill, and members of the City Council.
After Wednesday’s changes, the law will include requirements to track and improve air pollutants from the flurry of trucking, train and air cargo activity that will all release emissions.
Cities that are home to the port will be the first stop for private developers seeking permission for projects. If after six months these cities and developers can’t agree on an outcome and city appeals are exhausted, developers can go to the port’s board for a final decision. Biskupski believed the city should have ultimate authority over development decisions.
It’s unclear how much money the port authority will keep when the land is developed and property values rise, leading to higher revenues.
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said the bill couldn’t include specific numbers for sharing money between the port and cities because it’s to be determined how much the port will need to build the transportation network at the core of the envisioned trade hub.
Only seven lawmakers voted against the bill Wednesday, all of them Salt Lake City-area Democrats upset with the lack of public involvement in the bill that was unveiled just two days before it was approved.
But others from the area, including House Minority Leader Brian King, voted in favor, acknowledging what they said was an improved law.
“If I vote no then we’re stuck with the bill that we passed in March,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, whose district includes a portion of Rose Park. The bill “is a much better bill than the one we passed in March.”