‘Yet another power grab?’ Bill filed to give Utah Port Authority more reach, power to block lawsuits

This article originally appeared in the Deseret News. Read it in its entirety here.

SALT LAKE CITY — Ever since the Utah Legislature’s special session last summer to reach a compromise between Salt Lake City and state leaders on the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority, there’s been no other legislation filed to bring major changes to the port authority.

That is until late Tuesday, when a member of House GOP leadership filed a bill, HB433, that would allow the Utah Inland Port Authority to expand its reach outside of its current 16,000-acre jurisdiction — as well as prohibit any city from bringing legal action or any other challenge to the authority’s creation or existence.

The Utah Inland Port — a global trade hub made up of an import-export network of shipping yards, rail, truck and air connections — is expected to be the largest economic development project in Utah’s history.

While Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski called the bill “yet another power grab” from the state “even after assurances were made at the beginning of the session this would not happen,” the bill’s sponsor says that’s a far cry from the truth.

‘Hub and spoke’

The goal of the bill, according to its sponsor, House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, is to create a “hub and spoke” or a “spider-leg” model for the inland port, to allow other counties or cities to join the project.

In an interview with the Deseret News Wednesday afternoon, Gibson, who sits on the port authority board, said he doesn’t want to “overturn” the compromise legislation of last year, but rather to develop “more parameters for the inland port” to operate throughout the state, not just in Salt Lake City.

“To say it’s a power grab, that is a very far stretch,” Gibson said.

The bill would let the port authority “adopt a project area plan for an area outside the authority jurisdictional land” if the port authority receives written consent from the legislative body of the county or city where the land is located or from the private owner of the land, according to the bill.

“It allows other parts of the state to participate with the inland port,” Gibson said. “The body of the spider, or the hub, would be Salt Lake City. But we’ve always said the inland port is the Utah Inland Port.”

Gibson noted “there are lots of rural communities” that import and export goods out of the state and could benefit from the ability to clear international customs in their own communities, rather than having to ship goods to Salt Lake City first.

“In Carbon County, if we produce coal why can’t we just ship the coal from there instead of bringing the coal here?” Gibson said. “The whole aim is to be able to have customs and have people export our hay, oil and gas, things that we produce here … let’s get it out to their area so it doesn’t have to be shipped all the way to Salt Lake City and turned around to ship it all the way back out.”

Rural interests

Later Wednesday, Stuart Clason, a former inland port board member and now a representative for the Utah Association of Counties, gave a presentation to the port board on potential partnership opportunities with other areas across the state, including rural counties.

“This board needs to recognize that throughout the rest of the state there is a very high interest figuring out how to work with this body … and connect us with the global supply chain,” Clason said.

Spreading out the inland port’s operations — particularly through rail connections — could help “soften environmental impact” of the inland port and “help communities that are off the Wasatch Front that are desperate to figure out how to grow their economic activity,” Clason said.

Representatives from Weber County, Tooele County, Box Elder County and Millard County then spoke in support, making their own pitches to participate in the “hub and spoke” model — or a “constellation” model, as Derek Miller, chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority put it.

Miller didn’t discuss HB433 specifically but said leaders have been talking about a “hub and spoke” model from the beginning, and the inland port was never intended to benefit only Salt Lake City or even the Wasatch Front but rather the entire state.

‘Power grab’

The Utah Legislature’s final-hour passage of the sweeping legislation that created the Utah Inland Port Authority last year sparked fear and outrage from Salt Lake City leaders, who called it a state “land grab” that usurps the city’s ultimate land use authority.

The issue split Biskupski and Salt Lake City Council leaders after council members negotiated with state leaders resulting in last year’s “compromise” bill, which Biskupski refused to endorse, calling it a “bad deal” that still did not address the city’s major concerns.

In addition to allowing the inland port to expand its reach, Gibson’s bill would also allow the port authority to capture 100 percent of the area’s property tax growth for an additional 15 years beyond the 25 years previously allowed in original legislation, as well as half of all sales taxes collected from transactions “involving construction materials transported from out-of-state” and delivered within a port authority project area.

The bill would also ban political subdivisions from bringing legal action to “dispute the creation, existence, funding, powers, project areas, or duties of the authority,” and prohibit public money “from any source” to be used to fund such a legal challenge,” the bill states.

Biskupki has indicated a lawsuit against the Utah Inland Port Authority is imminent, though the mayor has not explicitly stated the city itself intends to sue.

In a statement issued later Wednesday, Biskupski said she wasn’t surprised by Gibson’s bill.

“HB433 makes clear what I knew last year, which is that any attempt to negotiate in good faith over this unprecedented bill will be met with goal shifting on the part of the state, designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the legislature’s will under the cover of cooperation,” Biskupski said.

“Rather than seriously address the significant issues of transparency, environmental impact, and respect for local control, the bill released today reinforces the worst parts of the original legislation,” the mayor continued. “This bill effectively creates a government entity, not only unaccountable to the community but immune from judicial scrutiny, closing the courtroom door to local communities.”

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman and a Utah campaigner for the Center of Biological Diversity who has been a loud critic of the port authority, also expressed deep concerns Wednesday about the bill.

“Taking away the authority of local public entities to challenge actions by the port authority is another enormous and troubling power grab in a process that has been full of them already,” Seed said. “They keep saying, ‘Trust us.’ This legislation is evidence that we have absolutely no reason to trust anyone involved in this misguided boondoggle.”

The progressive group Alliance for a Better Utah also issued a statement Wednesday criticizing the bill, saying it would “expand” the port authority’s powers and “further solidify its hostile takeover of land that previously was under the control of Salt Lake City.”

“It was hard for us to imagine how the inland port process could get any worse. Based on the shenanigans during last year’s session, his comportment as a member of the board, and now this bill, Rep. Gibson seems determined to push the bounds of our imagination,” said Chase Thomas, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah.

Thomas added: “The surrounding community continues to be trampled over in the Legislature’s haste, robbing it of valuable revenue and limiting its ability to seek justice in court.”

This article originally appeared in the Deseret News. Read it in its entirety here.

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