Salt Lake officials got House support for the state funding they want to renovate the Salt Palace, but a lot of lawmakers are furious over what they say is the smell of political "pork" still lingering through the halls of Capitol Hill.
In a 56-19 vote, lawmakers gave the Salt Palace $15 million for renovation but also tacked onto the bill $2 million for other city, county and private building projects, including one in the hometown of the bill's sponsor."I agree, there's no rhyme or reason for it or any of those other projects to be on the funding list," said House Majority Leader Rob Bishop, R-Brigham City, the sponsor of HB437.
The bill includes $30,000 for the privately owned Heritage Theater in Brigham City, as well as $670,000 for the Capitol Theatre, $380,000 for the Union Depot in Ogden, $420,000 for the Shakespeare Theater in Cedar City, $300,000 for the Hill Air Force Base Museum and $200,000 for the Egyptian Theater in Park City. The Senate still must approve the bill.
Officials from Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have lobbied for two years for Salt Palace funding, which they say is needed to convert the Salt Palace into a top-of-the-line convention center able to compete with other Western cities. They argue the tax money will be returned several fold by increased tax collections from the conventions.
As part of a "deal" with lawmakers, the county agreed to raise the sales tax on restaurants by 1 percent and the lodging tax by 0.5 percent. Added revenue from the lodging tax goes strictly to fund tourism development in the counties where it is collected.
The House earlier granted that authority to counties, and the Senate approved the measure Friday. The Senate will now consider the $17 million funding bill.
Several lawmakers remain opposed to any and all state funding for a county-owned and -operated facility.
"My belief is we have a lot more questions than answers about this project," said Rep. Kevin Garn, R-Layton. "We have seen no detailed cost analysis: It could cost $61 million, or it could cost $161 million."
Rep. John Valentine, R-Orem, also expressed concern about the constitutionality of the bill, which provides direct appropriations of state money to county projects over which the state has no control.
Rep. Glen Brown, R-Coalville, also expressed concern over two provisions of the bill, one that allows the county to keep $1.6 million in interest expected to be generated before the $15 million is spent, and the other which allows the county to pay off general revenue bonds with property tax increases - increases that do not have to be removed once the bonds are paid off.
"I think it's fair to say the county did not want this to go to a vote of the people," he said.
Bishop admitted the Salt Palace bills are "not perfect," but he added that both bills were part of a compromise package between the state and local governments.
"It is not a bill I find totally acceptable," Bishop said. "But in the end, the Salt Palace is a goal that is worthwhile. It works for a common goal that is good for all Utahns."
Bishop is less enthusiastic about the additional $2 million being spent for various projects - projects Bishop said should have gone through the regular or supplemental appropriations process.
The Capitol Theater, Shakespeare Theater and the Union Depot were requested by the governor, and the Egyptian Theater and Hill Air Force Base Museum were added on by a legislative committee.
The Heritage Theater was added on after it was determined there was still money left over. "That project is more legitimate than the Salt Palace because it is the only project on the list with matching money and the only one not owned by another governmental agency," Bishop said.
But that still didn't mollify some lawmakers, including Rep. Norm Nielsen, R-Orem, who tried to add an amendment requiring all projects on the $2 million list to have matching funds.
That amendment failed, as did another amendment to add $750,000 to the list to build a community center at the Utah Valley Community College.
Filling the pork barrel
It started as a $15 million proposal for Salt Palace renovation.
The House tacked on:
- $30,000, Heritage Theater, Brigham City.
- $670,000, Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City.
- $380,000, Union Depot, Ogden.
- $420,000, Shakespeare Theater, Cedar City.
- $300,000, Hill Air Force Base Museum.
- $200,000, Egyptian Theater, Park City.
Now it's a $17 million bill, on its way to a state Senate vote.