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Jackie Biskupski: Utah leaders misspend public funds, abandon Utah’s youth for fossil fuels

Utah Legislature tolerates the corruption that denies needed aid to rural communities.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Oil wells along the Nine Mile Canyon National Backcountry Byway in Duchesne County, Tuesday January 19, 2016.

Something wonderful happens when you hang around with young people. They give you hope.

The high school and college students who participated in the recent International Youth Summit are great examples. They’re committed to making Utah and the world a better place. But they’ve lost faith in self-serving politicians who’ve repeatedly shown they don’t give one iota about their future.

The latest example? State officials have misused nearly $110 million in public money to finance fossil-fuel projects, leaving rural Utah communities in the lurch, worsening the health and well-being of every Utahn, and giving our young people more reason not to trust them.

For more than a decade, the Permanent Community Impact Board has pilfered federal mineral lease revenues and royalties intended to help small cities and towns overrun by fossil-fuel extraction. Money that should’ve gone to desperately needed water and sewer services, road improvements and public safety equipment instead financed projects that will make things worse, like a proposed oil railway and refinery.

A new report from the Utah Clean Infrastructure Coalition and a 2020 state audit spell it all out. The board has been violating the federal Mineral Leasing Act since at least 2009.

The coalition’s Aug. 17, 2021, report documents that in 2020 Duchesne and Uintah counties identified $86.6 million in top-tier priorities for Community Impact Board funding, including water tanks, sewer lines and fire hydrants. So far Duchesne County has received less than $8 million in grants and loans, and Uintah County received just $4.3 million. In 2019 and 2020 the board funded seven fossil fuel projects totaling more than $48 million, including roads intended to facilitate oil and coal extraction.

The Legislative Auditor General’s investigation showed the Community Impact Board often failed to follow rules and guidelines limiting awards to projects that help communities deal with the impacts of mineral development. The audit highlighted the proposed Uinta Basin Railway as one of the projects demonstrating the need to improve the board’s practices.

How did the Utah Legislature respond? After turning a blind eye and failing to rein in this thievery for years, and then ignoring the recommendations of its own auditor, the Legislature passed a law this year to expand how these federal funds can be used, allowing the money to benefit the fossil-fuel industry.

Of course, this new state law violates federal law and conservation groups are suing. But, perhaps worse, this shows how far the Utah Legislature will go to stifle local control and how little lawmakers care about corruption.

I’ve stayed out of politics since I left office, but I can’t remain silent when the very people in charge of Utah’s future — who are supposed to represent all Utahns — are catering to the fossil fuel industry and ignoring the needs of local communities.

Maybe, by breaking my silence, you will break yours and, together, there’s a chance we can stop this.

I’ve also asked the U.S. Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to conduct a thorough investigation into the spending of federal mineral lease funds in the state of Utah since 2009, and take the necessary actions to ensure local communities receive the funds they deserve.

I know times are tough, but I ask Utah residents to please take five minutes to contact their state senators and representatives and demand that they commit all federal mineral lease funds to unfunded local community projects.

We can stop this corrupt activity and give our young people reason to be proud of Utah. We must act as if our future, and theirs, depends on it. Because it does.

Jackie Biskupski

Jackie Biskupski was Salt Lake City’s mayor from 2016-2020 and a member of the Utah House of Representatives from 1999–2011.

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