SALT LAKE CITY — With just one week of the state Legislature's 2021 session to go, lawmakers dropped a big bill that could have major implications for the Utah Inland Port Authority.
House lawmakers, while putting final touches on the state budget, announced Friday a big chunk of cash — $75 million — would be set aside in a newly created state "bank" that could be used to fund loans for the port authority.
SB243 creates what House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, called "infrastructure banks" that could stash state money to be used as loans for future projects. The bill would also create a loan fund for the Point of the Mountain area, which is slated for massive development when the Utah State Prison is relocated, but Gibson said the $75 million set aside this year would be specifically for the Utah Inland Port Authority project areas.
"As a projects come on board, (cities and counties) have the ability to make an application to borrow money from the state or from this fund, and then be able to repay it back through proceeds that are generated through projects within the various areas," Gibson told reporters on Friday.
The state budget with that funding included is to be unveiled later Friday during an Executive Appropriations Committee meeting scheduled for 5 p.m.
"These are loans," Gibson said. "They get repaid back. And there has to be a local match. And so those communities and counties that do that ... they're also putting their own money into this."
The Utah Inland Port Authority, created by the Legislature with a vision that it will maximize the state's imports and exports, is meant to spur infrastructure expansion, particularly for railroads, trucks and translating facilities.
Envisioned as a "hub-and-spoke" model, state leaders want the Utah Port Authority to be based in its current project area in Salt Lake City — the creation of which spurred controversy and a now yearslong legal battle with Salt Lake City leaders — while also having "spokes" in rural areas that also increase exports there, a concept that has rural counties eager for job growth chomping at the bit.
State leaders arrived at the $75 million figure because they wanted a fund large enough for projects not just along the Wasatch Front, but also in rural Utah, Gibson said.
"It's a lot of money," he acknowledged in an interview with the Deseret News. "But I think if you live in rural Utah, (you think) the 900 pound gorilla that eats everything is the Wasatch Front. So could there be projects on the Wasatch Front and the Salt Lake area? Absolutely. But there should still be a significant amount of money for rural communities in the state to know, 'I can still have access for a project to get our product out of here,' meaning exported."
Friday marked the first time lawmakers unveiled publicly they'd been considering creating the "infrastructure bank" legislation, and that they'd arrived at the $75 million figure.
Anticipating pushback from anti-inland port activists, Gibson acknowledged: "They won't be happy."
"And that's OK," he said. "I appreciate their passion."
As a port authority board member, Gibson said he's worked with its executive director, Jack Hedge, to "discuss how we minimize air quality damage and pollution. We've been committed to that."
"I think you'll see some movement for electrification and some other things going on at the inland port site in Salt Lake to be able to provide more electric options as opposed to oil and gas or traditionally dirty diesel type things," Gibson said. "We'll see that moving forward."
Gibson added: "To those critics who say, 'This inland port, I don't want it.' Initially they didn't want it because they thought it was Salt Lake. And as we've had more people who want the spokes to come on board, the critics have now said we don't want it all. Well those people in rural Utah who live there are very anxious to have something in their local economy that they can actually create jobs, they can continue to export the goods that they create already."
House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, backed the money for inland port "infrastructure banks" and what he said it would mean for rural Utah, as well as for Salt Lake Valley.
"This investment is great for the people that don't want it," Schultz said. "It's going to take and spread it out and not have it all focused on Salt Lake ... love the hub-and-spoke model. And once you spend that $75 million all across the region and across the state, yeah, it's not that much."
Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer with Stop the Polluting Port, said Friday she'd heard rumors about the possibility of lawmakers setting aside money for project areas, but she first learned of the $75 million amount when contacted by the Deseret News.
"First of all, what's disturbing about this is we're getting news of it from the news media and not from the policy makers," Seed said. "There's been absolutely no discussion of this in the public, and you know, it's a terrible terrible idea to spend taxpayer money when there's no plan."
In a text message, Seed called it an "'Inland Pork Fund' cooked up behind closed doors, to be managed by six insiders making sweetheart loans at low interest rates to benefit a few private businesses. There is no plan, all of this is speculative and a blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars."
Seed noted no other Utah Inland Port Authority project areas have been created other than Salt Lake City's, and so it's "problematic" that the money would be set aside even though it's unclear what exactly it would be used for.
"So this is assigning $75 million to support a speculative project that has no discernible evidence of a benefit to any of these communities. It's wasteful," Seed said. "What are the parameters around it? ... Why would you put aside $75 million for something in taxpayer money when you have no idea what that thing is going to be?"
To Gibson's arguments that the money could help rural communities, Seed said inland ports are "basically giant transloading facilities of one sort or another, and they can be very disruptive to communities, even rural communities."
"Why not wait until there is a plan?" Seed said. "It seems like it's pork-barrel spending, honestly, and some kind of gesture toward rural Utah. But, you know, it could end up harming those communities, frankly, depending on what's built."