Editorial: Utah politicians are an easy mark for a con

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Waters Edge housing development along the east shore of Utah Lake is pictured on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

“I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

George Washington Plunkett (1842-1924), Tammany Hall politician

It’s The Utah Way®.

It’s also the plot of “The Music Man.”

A quick-talking businessperson sees that the state of Utah needs something — or can be convinced that it needs something — and steps in with an off-the-wall plan to meet that need.

If only the Utah Legislature, the governor, the attorney general or some local government will kick in a few million dollars of taxpayer money.

Which, all too often, they do. Because Utah voters aren’t paying enough attention and are too eager to reelect their easily flimflammed politicians.

This vulnerability was a plague of its own that spread during the COVID-19 pandemic, directing money and legitimacy to dangerous, large-scale quackery.

It has repeatedly seduced Utah lawmakers who have scientifically illiterate fears of wolves and sage grouse.

It has cost taxpayers millions in legal fees paid to high-end “outside counsel” to pursue cases that Attorney General Sean Reyes and his deputies should routinely handle themselves. Or drop.

It often seems to add credibility to the plan, in the eyes of Utah’s elected leaders, if those proposing it have no discernible experience or expertise in the matter. Taking guidance from real experts — the state’s own expert staff, its outstanding public and private universities or its two world-class health care systems — is something our leadership seems allergic to.

Gov. Spencer Cox is lucky that, back in November of 2021, he did pay attention to the gnomes in his own executive branch and backed out of what would have been the most politically embarrassing news conference since Rudy Giuliani’s ill-fated stop-the-steal presser at Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

Had it gone ahead, it would have been Cox, his lieutenant governor, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and other department heads, and some legislators, turning the podium over to the CEO of a now-bankrupt outfit called Lake Restoration Solutions to announce a big federal loan for its since-crashed $6 billion plan to dredge the troubled Utah Lake and use the resulting tons of sludge to form artificial islands on which houses could be built.

LRS lobbyists basically treated the governor like a maître d’ and the Capitol’s swanky Gold Room like a hotel ballroom, scripting a news conference to announce a public-private partnership supposedly seeded with a $893 million lake clean-up loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The event was canceled when staff at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality responsibly quizzed their opposite numbers at EPA and found out that the federal loan that was to be announced had not, indeed, been approved, or even moved up the list of contending applications.

The idea, supposedly, was to deal with some real problems with the lake — toxic algae blooms, invasive species — in a way that would relieve the taxpayers of the burden by allowing private developers to take the lead, bear the costs and, in the end, reap the rewards.

The fact that LRS and its CEO, Ryan Benson, had absolutely zero experience in such massive ecological engineering projects should have left the scheme dead in the murky water before anyone in a position of responsibility even expressed interest.

Benson did, however, have the experience that really counts. He has wheedled some $12 million out of the Legislature over the past decade, supposedly for efforts to oppose federal protection for sage grouse and wolves.

So it is no great surprise that the Legislature promised (but never paid out) $10 million in loan guarantees and directed the Department of Natural Resources to pursue the lake-dredging idea. The mayor of the city of Vineyard, without council approval, pledged $5 million from that city’s taxpayers (also never paid).

The executive director of the state-created Utah Lake Authority pledged $45 million that he didn’t have. Then got hired as Vineyard’s city manager.

The more everyone looked into the idea, though, the fishier it became. Experts said it was unlikely to really solve the lake’s woes, could well make everything much worse and that much less spectacular actions were already dealing with the problem.

Besides, other state officials determined, it would be an unconstitutional surrender of state sovereignty over the lake bed.

It was only when the state’s in-house experts spoke up, and were listened to, that Utah avoided a massive con.

Utah needs a political class that is more skeptical of the Harold Hills who frequent Capitol Hill. Which means it needs an electorate that demands a higher level of discernment among the candidates it votes for.