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Aerin Christensen and Heather Curry: Utah needs to streamline its permitting processes

Bill before the Legislature would help people navigate the maze of government regulation.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) In this Aug. 20, 2020, photo the Utah House of Representatives convenes for a special session of the Legislature at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.

It happens so frequently that we hardly even notice it. If you want to start a business, remodel your house or even hold a yard sale, you need to get a permit or a license from the government.

Whether it’s paying a fee or filling out some paperwork, we accept it as part of the cost of doing business in America. But sometimes, getting the government’s permission can be like navigating a maze while you’re blindfolded.

The process to obtain the right permit for the right job can be confusing and even burdensome for many Americans. Vaguely worded requirements can leave applicants unsure if they have met the permitting criteria, while undefined processing times can drag into months and even years, creating delays that cost Utahns’ time and money.

While some activities need little more than a form and a fee to obtain a permit, others may require applicants to meet ambiguous standards that are up to interpretation, allowing bureaucrats to deny or delay permits indefinitely. In those cases where applicants may want to challenge a decision, they are required to do so in administrative hearings, without the due process protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. And it doesn’t, thanks to new legislation being considered in the Utah Legislature. That legislation is Senate Bill 204, an essential reform introduced by Sen. Kirk Cullimore that moves Utah toward a clearer and more consistent permitting process.

Rather than ask Utahns to weave through a patchwork of confusing regulations, the new law would ensure that permitting processes throughout the state meet three simple and common sense rules:

First, there must be clear and unambiguous language that defines the criteria by which a permit may be granted or denied.

Second, applications must be approved or denied within a specified period of time. SB204 institutes a timeline of 30 days for most permits, allowing up to 60 days when additional approvals are needed.

Finally, if a permit application is denied, the applicant must be free to challenge that ruling in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already stated that these guidelines are constitutionally mandatory whenever any government entity requires an American to obtain a permit. SB204 does not eliminate any existing permit requirements; rather, it simply ensures that all Utahns have access to the same protections, no matter where they may reside in the state. Not only is that good news for anyone hoping to get a permit, it also brings government entities into compliance with the Supreme Court’s rulings.

Instituting these simple guidelines will have positive repercussions across Utah. Having processes that can be relied upon as consistent and fair will increase public trust in local and state officials and most importantly, free people up to go about their lives unencumbered by government red tape.

When permitting processes are so onerous that applicants would rather sidestep the process than comply, it becomes more and more likely that permit requirements will be ignored. If Utahns can trust that they will encounter fair processes, they will be more likely to seek permits on projects large and small which further protects the health and safety of the community.

Utah’s legislators have a unique opportunity to bring consistency and common sense to permitting processes across the state by supporting SB204. Instituting the guidelines necessary to govern clear and consistent permitting processes will ensure that Utahns are free to pursue their own version of the American dream while also protecting safe and clean communities.

Aerin Christensen | Libertas Institute

Aerin Christensen is the local government policy analyst at Libertas Institute, a non-profit think tank in Utah.

Heather Curry | The Goldwater Institute

Heather Curry is the director of strategic engagement at The Goldwater Institute, a non-profit think tank in Arizona.

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