SALT LAKE CITY — It's full steam ahead for another Utah Inland Port Authority bill filed late in the Utah Legislature's general session, this year to create a funding mechanism for low-interest loans for rural port projects.
Even though dozens of public speakers lined up both online and in person on Utah's Capitol Hill Monday — filling the Senate committee room's limited capacity due to COVID-19 and multiple overflow rooms — the committee's chairman, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, allowed less than 15 minutes of public comment on the bill as lawmakers barrel toward the end of the 45-day session this week.
"We're running out of time here," Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said as he called on the last few public commenters to speak. Not long after, the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee swiftly voted 6-1 to endorse the bill, with only Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, voting against.
It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
Stevenson's SB243 would create "infrastructure banks" that would stash state money to be used as loans for future Utah Inland Port Authority projects, including projects in rural areas. House lawmakers announced Friday a big chunk of one-time cash — $75 million — would be set aside in that type of "infrastructure bank" specifically for port authority projects.
Proponents, including Utah Inland Port Authority executive director Jack Hedge, said the SB243 bill to create "infrastructure banks" for rural port projects would "give us opportunities to focus on rural area efforts."
"Our goal with this infrastructure bank is to use that to stimulate project growth. ... That really is our focus," Hedge said.
Stevenson echoed what Hedge and other pro-port stakeholders have been emphasizing to address environmental concerns.
"We have the opportunity to build a new port unlike anything else in the world," Stevenson said. "I think all the industries that want to come here will all be very green."
Activists have protested the port for years — at one point storming the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce building downtown and at times disrupting public meetings and facing arrests — to prevent what they see as a project that would worsen Wasatch Front air quality, ruin fragile wetland areas near the Great Salt Lake, snarl Utah roads with more trucks, and increase fossil fuel exports from Utah's rural areas.
As anti-inland port activists spoke against the bill, calling it yet another Utah Inland Port Authority bill drafted behind the scenes and unveiled with little time for the public to digest it, they raced to finish their comments in the one minute each they were allowed before their mics were cut off.
"This whole process is just ridiculous," said Katie Pappas of Salt Lake City.
Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer with Stop the Polluting Port, called the public process "shameful," and one meant to facilitate development of a Utah Inland Port that continues to worry environmentalists because she said there "aren't any green ports" in existence.
"Why are you creating a funding mechanism ... before there is even a plan in place?" Seed asked. "Wouldn't it be more responsible to create the plan first before creating a funding vehicle?"
Bill sponsor Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson said SB243 "builds a fence around these funds until a viable project comes to the authority" and a loan committee would determine project viability.
As currently laid out in the bill, the loan fund would be managed by a committee of five appointed members, including two appointed by the governor, one by the House speaker, one by the Senate president, and one by the chairperson of the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board.
"This doesn't turn the funds over to these authorities," Stevenson says. "They have to go through a process to get them."
The bill would also create a the loan fund mechanism for the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, the board overseeing development of the soon-to-be-former site of the Utah State Prison in Draper, and the Military Installation Development Authority, a body the state initially created to ramp up development near Hill Air Force Base, but was expanded to create a new ski resort in Wasatch County.
Victoria Ashby, director of government relations for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, and Salt Lake City Councilman Andrew Johnston expressed concerns about the bill. They asked for a city representative on the committee that oversees the loan fund, as well as worries that the loan fund could act as a vehicle to potentially spend city tax increment (tax revenue generated from property tax growth) on projects outside Salt Lake City's project area jurisdiction.
"We need to pay attention to that," Johnston said. "Because that could be a precedent setting kind of step."
Salt Lake City is still locked in a court battle with the state, which has now rose to the level of the Utah Supreme Court, over whether the creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority and its nearly 16,000-acre jurisdiction in Salt Lake City is constitutional.
Stevenson said he was still working on the bill "while I was sitting in church yesterday," and pledged to Salt Lake City and other parties that "the door is not shut. We will continue discussions."
To complaints about the late-filed bill and the condensed time for public input on the bill, Stevenson acknowledged, "It's late in the session."
"My apologies to the public, but it has a lot to do with my schedule and drafters," he said. "We're not moving quite as fast as we normally do."
Stevenson said the bill was worked on "through the session." Even though Friday marked the first time lawmakers unveiled that they'd been considering creating the "infrastructure bank" legislation and that they'd arrived at the $75 million figure, Stevenson said there was "no attempt to bypass any process or any public opinion in this bill."
"There was no attempt to do this in the backroom," Stevenson said. "It's out in the daylight now."