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Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signs inland port bank bill over calls for a veto from opponents

Several measures he signed Monday address the state’s national monuments and rural economic development.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This aerial photo from June 2018 shows where the main inland port will be built, with satellite ports to be developed in rural areas of the state.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Sanpete County farmer and business executive who named rural economic development as a top priority for his new administration, signed several bills into law Monday that align with that goal.

The most high-profile is SB243, which would create an “infrastructure bank” designed to help the statewide inland port project get off the ground through loans that would fund expensive roads, water, sewage and power. Under the bill, a committee will be formed to approve the lending of funds, with membership made up by appointments from the governor, lawmakers and other community groups.

Proponents of the distribution hub development say that the influx of some $75 million in state funding set aside specifically for projects within the port authority’s jurisdiction amounts to a “transformational” investment in what’s been billed as the state’s largest ever economic development project.

Opponents, who have slammed the funding framework as “anti-democratic,” and an effort to circumvent the normal public process for determining how money will be spent, called on Cox to veto it — something he indicated at his monthly news conference last week that he was unlikely to do.

“I’ve been very supportive of the inland port and especially this piece, which expands those opportunities into rural Utah where that infrastructure is desperately needed and where it will make an impact on those communities in a very positive way,” he said, noting that rural development could help alleviate traffic and air quality impacts along the Wasatch Front.

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and an organizer with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, said in a statement that the governor’s decision to sign SB243 was “disappointing.”

However, she said it was “not unexpected given the Governor’s support for a number of polluting and environmentally harmful projects in addition to the inland port and satellite ports — including the Uinta Basin Railway, the Lake Powell pipeline and Bear River diversions (which would harm the Great Salt Lake).”

“We hope sometime to have a conversation with him about our concerns, as he seems to be someone who is open to conversation,” she added.

Other rural economic development bills Cox signed Monday include SB194, which creates the Utah Main Street Program within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development as part of an effort to revitalize downtown or commercial districts in cities across the state, and HB356, which modifies an existing post-performance tax incentive program to better help businesses in rural Utah.

Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, noted during debate of that bill that while tax incentives have worked “very well for the Wasatch Front, I don’t think anybody could argue [against the premise] that it has not worked for rural Utah.”

HB356 would make it easier for businesses in more rural areas of the state to welcome new jobs, he said, including in the mining and agricultural industries.

National monument debate wears on

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This June 26, 2020, file photo shows Comb Ridge, located within the Bears Ears National Monument.

Cox gave his special mark of approval to several of the 56 bills he signed on Monday during a ceremonial signing session that featured some of the legislative sponsors and guest speakers at his rural office at Southern Utah University.

Among the proposals was HCR12, a resolution that calls on President Joe Biden to work “cooperatively” with the state’s federal and local government leaders and tribes on actions relating to national monuments.

That request comes as the new administration has taken steps toward restoring the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the national monuments that Donald Trump reduced by 2 million acres in 2017 after their designations upset Utah political leaders who saw them as federal overreach.

“We’ve had big issues on the Bears Ears as well as the Grand Staircase National Monument, and this encourages our congressional delegation to try to get some resolve to this,” said Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, during debate on the bill earlier this month.

The resolution, which calls for transferring public land use authority to the state Legislature, points to challenges that have come with the monument designations — including with water, fire and wildlife management and invasive plant control. And the tourism industry that has popped up around the monuments “fails to offset the negative financial impacts of reduced natural resources related jobs and the state’s ability to manage lands for future economic growth,” it states.

The nonbinding resolution says the state wants to find “a collaborative, broadly supported, and long-term solution” to the monuments — but changing the size of them every four to eight years “does not help anyone, particularly those whose life and livelihood are tied to the land.”

Cox also signed HB341, which creates an advisory committee to study a visitor center at Bears Ears that would address the impact of increased visitation in the area and educate tourists on its history and geography.

Other bills the governor signed Monday include:

  • HB224, which looks to raise awareness of the importance of Utah’s bees by running workshops on garden habitats, distributing bee-friendly flowering plants or seeds that are native to the state and establishing grants to cover the cost of planting them.

  • SB214, which will remove from state law part of a controversial English-only provision that passed at the ballot box a few decades ago.

  • HB279, which will allow youth in Utah’s juvenile justice system to take college classes while in custody through a partnership with Dixie State University.

Cox has signed a total 446 bills since the legislative session ended earlier this month. He faces a Thursday deadline to sign or veto bills.

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