The Utah House of Representatives struck down a bill Friday that would have allowed communities to strike out and create their own county without a majority vote from the county they would leave behind.
Rep. Kim Coleman, the bill’s sponsor, argued the proposal was an important way to honor the ability for communities to self-direct. But her colleagues worried about the process by which HB93 would allow counties to split and raised concerns the bill would disenfranchise those in the community left behind.
“We as a Legislature need to be very, very careful when we decide where we’re going to allow voters of Utah to have a voice in a vote and where we’re not allowing people to have a vote in their own destiny,” said Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City. “Self determination is an important process, absolutely. But we can’t allow some people to self determine while leaving some people behind without any choice.”
A proposed secession must currently be approved countywide by voters on both sides of the split.
While Coleman said she was not advancing her bill to promote a particular break, she represents an area where leaders have expressed interest. Representatives from Herriman, Riverton, South Jordan, West Jordan and Copperton have said they don’t feel represented in Salt Lake County and are frustrated by what they see as a disproportionate lack of funding. They saw this bill as a tool that would help them negotiate for better treatment.
“We could spend a day talking about how we have experienced that nonresponsiveness,” Coleman told lawmakers on Friday. “So, should the people come together in the numbers enough to ask for a feasibility study, if that feasibility study shows that both newly created entities would be feasible, it lets the people decide. And we don’t have that right now.”
A Republican state lawmaker from San Juan County has also expressed support for the bill, following a landmark power shift that gave the southeastern Utah county its first majority Navajo and Democratic commission.
Coleman’s bill — which failed in the House on Friday by a 29-40 vote after receiving a favorable recommendation from a committee in early February — has been stalled on the floor since Feb. 12 as she made changes.
Among the amendments was a provision that residents would be required to first petition the Lieutenant Governor’s Office to conduct a feasibility study on a split — a response to concerns raised in the bill’s committee hearing that a break could economically cripple one or both counties. The feasibility study would be conducted by a third-party firm that would examine whether both the new county and the one that would be left behind are economically viable.
If the results of the study were positive, the bill would have next required a public process to inform residents of the results. Then, within a year from when the study was completed, residents would be able petition to get a secession question on the ballot after meeting a certain signature threshold.
“This is an amazing process,” Coleman argued, noting that it would be similar to the creation of new cities. “It probably forecloses the people in my area from actually executing what they’d like to do, but the process is good. And I feel if the process is good, that’s good public policy.”
But most of her colleagues disagreed, with some arguing that the issue would benefit from more interim study.
“The idea of splitting a county I think is a huge undertaking,” said Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper. “I think it would be a very ill-advised step if we were to try to look at that in a county like Salt Lake County. But in addition to that, I’m just not sure this is the right process.”
Stenquist said he was intimately involved with the process to break off a piece of Jordan School District to create Canyons School District in 2009 and said creating a process similar to that may be more successful.
One lawmaker spoke in support of the bill: Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, who said it would provide a “very good framework” that could later be revised.
“One of the foundations of government is the ability to be responsive to voters in that government,” he said. “When there is a point where the interests are so diverse within a county and the population becomes so great, it does make sense to allow for the consideration” of a split.
With a population size of 1.2 million people, Coleman said Salt Lake County is 10 times larger than Utah’s average county and argued that growth has diluted its responsiveness to residents in her area.
“There is a disenfranchisement that is palpable in parts of my county,” she said.
The Utah Association of Counties formally opposed the bill. So did the Salt Lake County Council, whose chairman, Richard Snelgrove, told The Tribune a split would be “financially devastating” for both pieces.