SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature approved changes to the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority law during Wednesday's special session — easily winning support from GOP lawmakers, but dividing the Democrats in at times heated exchanges.
Discord between Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and her own City Council on negotiations with state leaders remained deep and bitter, forcing some minority legislators to choose who to side with — their mayor or their council.
Ultimately, only a handful of Democrats ended up voting against the bill, which shrunk the port authority's boundaries by about 4,000 acres and added some concessions to the city for land use decisions, among other changes.
After a few minor amendments, the final version of HB2001 passed the House 62-5 and the Senate 22-2.
While City Council and state leaders applauded HB2001 as a compromise to quell the bulk of the city's concerns with ultimate land use and tax authority, Biskupski argued the bill still leaves "many unanswered questions" and said it still didn't fully address the city's main concerns with land use authority and tax increment.
After the bill was granted final passage, Biskupski issued a statement, calling legislator's actions a "bad deal" and "one of the most disappointing displays of 'democracy' that I have seen in my time as an elected official."
Biskupski said she had been "unwilling" to join in or support the City Council's negotiations with the state because "it had been made abundantly clear to me that the state had no intention of returning to Salt Lake City our rightful authority."
"I could not in good conscience participate in the crafting of legislation which provides unlimited authority to an unelected and unaccountable board," the mayor said, stressing that even with the changes to the law, Salt Lake City "still would not have final say on land use decisions" in the area's now roughly 16,000 acres in the northwest quadrant.
But Gov. Gary Herbert, who called Wednesday's special session after several weeks of negotiations with the City Council after negotiations with Biskupski hit a wall in May, deemed HB2001 a success.
“I deeply appreciate the hard work done by members of the Salt Lake City Council," Herbert said. "They helped craft a more sustainable foundation for this huge opportunity that we have through the Utah Inland Port to connect Utah workers and ingenuity with the global supply chain.”
House Speaker Greg Hughes, who has largely championed the creation of an inland port and drove SB234 during the 2018 general session, also threw his support behind HB2001.
"We have a far better bill," the Draper Republican told lawmakers in Wednesday morning's Interim Business and Labor Committee, saying the bill goes to "great lengths to respect local land use control." But, the speaker added, "it's not an endpoint."
Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall, alongside other council members and with the backing of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, thanked state leaders for negotiating to make a bad bill better, she said.
"The draft bill isn't perfect," Mendenhall said, but she added "it makes substantial improvements to the concerns of Salt Lake City" around tax increment, land use authority and other issues.
But Biskupski didn't agree. Rather than a "cleanup" to a "bad bill," Biskupski called for state and city leaders to "start over from a place of true and open dialogue." She said her concerns should be "shared by every city and town in Utah" because the bill continues to set "an unprecedented standard for the state to override the wishes" of cities.
"No city, especially the capital city, should roll over and allow for this," Biskupksi told lawmakers.
Before floor time, Biskupski and City Council leaders worked to lobby votes in the Senate and House minority caucus.
"The bill needs to be killed," Biskupski said in the Senate Minority Caucus, urging legislators to vote against HB2001. She argued the Utah Inland Port Authority board would still have the power to ultimately usurp land use authority and would still be able to control 100 percent of the project area's tax increment, regardless of changes that add in provisions to give the city more say before land use appeals would fall to the board.
A better approach, the mayor argued, would be to push restart altogether.
But to City Council members, some progress now was better than none.
"Is it perfect? No way is it perfect," Mendenhall said, but she said the bill puts the city on stronger footing to lobby for more improvement in the future.
It included provisions to shrink the port authority's boundaries by excluding wetlands and developed areas, clarification of the port authority's land use appeal process as a "last resort," placed a 2 percent cap on property tax increment to be used for port authority operations, and carved out 10 percent of the tax increment to be set aside for affordable housing.
HB2001 also included changes to the port authority's conflict of interest rules to specifically allow Councilman James Rogers to serve on the board, even though he owns office rental space within the authority's 5-mile restrictive boundary.
I could not in good conscience participate in the crafting of legislation which provides unlimited authority to an unelected and unaccountable board.
–Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski
Prior to floor time, the Senate Minority Caucus became heated when the City Council came in to lobby for votes. Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, became audibly frustrated, his voice rising to a shout.
"Is this a war against the mayor or is this to fix the inland port?" Davis said, expressing frustration with the divide between the council and the mayor.
"Read the bill, senator," City Councilman Charlie Luke interjected.
"The city cannot speak with eight voices," Davis said.
"We're speaking with two, senator," Luke said.
Davis pointed his finger at Luke as he verbally jabbed back.
"As a city resident, I am really upset about the fact that you can't get along with the mayor, or the mayor can't get along with you," Davis said. "I'm really upset with that. The city has never operated this way. Ever."
Like the council and the mayor, Democratic lawmakers were also divided. Unlike Davis, Sen. Jim Dabakis backed City Council negotiations, arguing HB2001 would be better than living with SB234.
"To those in my city who feel as though this should be a 'no' vote, let me explain something to you," Dabakis said on the Senate floor. "This is tangibly much better for the people of Salt Lake City than the status quo."
Dabakis credited the City Council for "taking a catastrophe for Salt Lake City and hammering out what is a better bill," one that is "better for the environment, better for the governance of the city, (and) better for affordable housing, he said.
But Davis called HB2001 "only a Band-aid, and not a good Band-aid to put on this big of a wound."
Earlier Wednesday, during the only public hearing scheduled for the bill the morning before the Legislature was scheduled to vote, concerned residents continued to protest the rushed process.
In the Interim Business and Labor Committee, the bill was scheduled at the end of an interim agenda, preceded by several other topics. After House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, presented the bill and fielded questions from the committee, roughly only 20 minutes remained for public comments.
Some speakers' time was limited to 60 seconds, drawing fury from community members wanting to speak out against the port and its creation process.
"This is our point," shouted out Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity who has been helping spearhead community pushback on the port. "You're making our point."
"The process has been horrible," Seed said. "And the example of that is what we're seeing today, the fact that we're having to rush through public comments."