President Clinton loves Utah and its people. Well, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, but at least he respects them.
At least that's what Mickey Ibarra, a Utah native and Clinton's director of intergovernmental affairs, told Utah reporters at a press briefing Thursday.In fact, it is Clinton's profound respect for the state and its governor that led to a monumental land swap last week between the state and federal government, as well as a deal to transfer 11 acres at Fort Douglas to the University of Utah.
Those deals were consummated not by the Bush administration "and certainly not by the Reagan administration," Ibarra said. "President Clinton said he would work out an exchange, and he did."
Ibarra spent much of the briefing praising Clinton's record on Utah issues and promising more favorable "deals" are in the works. He laid out a new Clinton proposal to break the deadlock on federal highway funding - funding needed to accelerate I-15 construction before the 2002 Olympics.
Ibarra came to Salt Lake City on the invitation of Mayor Deedee Corradini. He toured Olympic venues, the now blighted Gateway area and light-rail routes, both north-south and east-west.
Maintaining good relations with Ibarra is high on the priority list of city officials. He has put out various fires on behalf of the city, including reversing a presidential veto of a land swap of 11 acres of Fort Douglas that would have blocked use of the area as Olympic athlete housing.
"I'm in contact with Mickey all the time," Corradini said. "I wanted him to see all of these things firsthand."
Corradini is adept at wooing federal assistance for the city. Her latest success was getting Salt Lake City named as one of 16 federal Brownfield Showcase Communities around the nation. The designation will bring in millions in federal dollars as well as assistance from various agencies in the Gateway area redevelopment.
Ibarra will submit a report of the visit to President Clinton in a week. "One of my surprises was to find he actually reads them," Ibarra said. "They come back in a few days with comments - he's left-handed - written in the left margin."
Although Ibarra had nothing to do with it, he spent considerable time touting the benefits to Utah of a massive trade of school trust lands now locked inside national reserves. He said the deal could provide as much as $1 billion to the trust established to help fund Utah's public schools.
The deal gave the federal government 376,739 acres of the so-called "inholdings" in exchange for $50 million in cash, another $13 million in coal royalties and 139,000 acres of mineral-rich lands, most of them in Carbon and Emery counties.
Republicans in Utah, however, have been loath to give Clinton credit for breaking the six-decade deadlock over inholdings - or to acknowledge that the establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument could bring any good to the state.
"Why it is that Utahns won't provide a degree of credit I feel the president deserves, I don't understand," Ibarra said, adding the president did the right thing for the citizens of Utah, and at this point it is not that important who gets the credit.
Ibarra discounted reports the administration felt remorse over the way the monument was created without the knowledge of state officials and that the federal government had given Utah a sweetheart land deal to soften the sting.
"I guess we'll let the facts speak for themselves," he said, adding the president delivered on a commitment "because it was the right thing to do."
The deal must still be approved by Congress, and Ibarra warned that the legislation must not be loaded down with unrelated issues or pork-barrel funding for other states "that Congress is known to add on."
Ibarra addressed a number of other issues, including:
- Concerns over Utah's liberal concealed-weapons law that, if unchanged, could jeopardize Olympic security as armed spectators attend the 2002 Games. The "federalization" of the venues to get around the Utah law is not an option, meaning it will be up to Utah security officials to find a solution, he said.
- Clinton's promise to spend $219 billion on highway projects over the next seven years, a "generous offer" that brings the administration more in line with congressional proposals. That proposal would also mean $5 billion in cuts to other programs, but not priority programs like PELL grants, Headstart, funding for the National Institutes of Health, law enforcement and education.
- A promise there will be a settlement on tobacco litigation before Congress adjourns.
- Clinton's determination to have a public education program in place this year. As currently proposed, that program would mean a $4.9 million appropriation to Utah for class-size reduction and tens of millions more in bonding authority for new schools. Of course, that funding would come with strings, including performance testing.
Ibarra was also in town to help raise money for state Democrats. He met with Democratic legislators Thursday afternoon, then hosted a reception at the Alta Club in the evening.