SALT LAKE CITY — Trading banter at a self-organized news conference — attended by a group of concerned west-side residents who weren't laughing — House Speaker Greg Hughes and Sen. Jim Dabakis on Tuesday unveiled a list of proposals they believe could break Utah inland port negotiations free from gridlock.
It was the first that Salt Lake City officials and other state Democrats had heard of the private chats between the Draper Republican and the Salt Lake City Democrat — talks that Hughes said happened spontaneously in a parking lot after he and Dabakis butted heads over the inland port on a Sunday morning TV talk show.
"What we both realized … we've got to find common ground," Hughes said. "You can't let perfect be the enemy of good."
So the speaker said Dabakis devised "a list of demands" to help end the standoff between city leaders and the state and fix SB234, the controversial law passed by the Utah Legislature that created the Utah Inland Port Authority. Salt Lake City leaders have fought the law tooth and nail, saying it usurps city land use authority and captures an exorbitant 100 percent of tax increment.
"I"ll be frank and I'll be honest, do I think these points make the inland port stronger as a project? I actually don't," Hughes said. "Do I think finding common ground with Salt Lake City or its public servants … does that make the inland port project stronger? It absolutely does."
"So as Jim goes through his list of demands, like a ransom note," Hughes joked, "I'm not here clicking my heels. But I am telling you this: This is the position we've been in. We knew that we needed to find common ground … so we are presenting that we think there is progress to be made here."
• Adjust the port authority's power over land use by granting Salt Lake City its normal planning process for six months before it would default to the port's board.
• Specify only 2 percent of the project area's tax increment would be set aside for the board's administrative costs, and 10 percent would be guaranteed to go toward affordable housing, as is currently required under state law.
• Exclude all wetlands located on the north side of the project area from the port's jurisdiction.
• Cover all coal as it's transported and stored.
• Include a guarantee Salt Lake City International Airport would never be included in the port's authority.
Dabakis' demands, however, only partially address Salt Lake City leaders' top concerns with land use and tax authority. The port authority board would still have the power to capture 100 percent of the area's tax increment — though both Hughes and Dabakis said in future legislation, negotiations may bring down that percentage to 75 percent for the state and 25 percent for the city.
"We're starting, now, with a catastrophe as far as I'm concerned," Dabakis said, referring to how SB234 was passed in a flurry on the House and Senate floors on the second to last day of the 2018 legislative session.
"Greg and the state government are the 500-pound gorilla," he said. "So if we can make the state law more amenable toward what may come anyway, that's a big step forward."
But Dabakis' own Democratic peers weren't happy with his private talks with the speaker, and in a statement issued after the news conference, accused him of continuing the "lack of transparency" over inland port negotiations.
"We were blindsided by this," Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said in a statement. "It is my constituents who will be directly impacted by the inland port, but they didn’t include us in any of these conversations."
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said she was "disappointed" to see Dabakis engage in "backroom deals" when he's complained about them in the past.
"How does he expect people to trust him?" she said. "It's hypocritical."
On Twitter, Dabakis rebuked his fellow Democrats, saying "too many egos involved."
"Look at our ideas. Very serious. Much better deal for the city," he tweeted. "Right now port authority exists and it's a disaster. Love to see grumblers' ideas."
During the press conference, however, Dabakis apologized to Salt Lake City elected officials for not including them, but said he had to do something to end the standoff, and gathering everyone for those spontaneous talks wasn't practical. He urged city leaders, the governor, Hughes and others to "continue the discussions."
"Because there's going to be a port," Dabakis said. "The question is what kind of a port and what kind of protections are there going to be."
Several Salt Lake City Council members and staff came to the news conference to listen — but Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski was absent, attending an affordable housing project grand opening. Her staff, however, was present.
Both Biskupski's deputy chief of staff, David Litvack, and City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said they are open to continuing conversations — but the "devil's in the details," as Litvack put it.
"I can honestly say that what was said today sounds a lot better than the status quo," Litvack said, but first he said city leaders would need to mull over Dabakis' recommendations in detail and determine whether they fully address the city's top concerns with land use authority and tax increment.
"What does this look like in statute?" Litvack questioned, welcoming further discussions.
Mendenhall said the rest of the council would need to be briefed on the proposals, but she said she's "thankful" to Dabakis and Hughes for "bringing ideas and willingness to discuss."
"We are absolutely willing to have that conversation," she said. "We want the city to be made whole."
As far as the city's top concerns, Mendenhall said she was "encouraged" by the proposal to give the city zoning process a six-month time frame, as well as potential future talks of a 75 percent and 25 percent split on the tax increment.
"I'm thankful that they are coming to the table and bringing ideas and willingness to discuss," she.
"We look forward to learning more about exactly what they intend to change in that regard," she said.
It's not clear whether a consensus might be reached to call a special session this year, but Mendenhall said she hopes SB234's issues can be resolved "in a timely manner so the board doesn't get so far down a path of action."
The Utah Inland Port Authority's first official meeting is scheduled for June 18.
Throughout clashes with state leaders, Salt Lake City officials have said a lawsuit remains an option — though a last resort.
"A lawsuit has never been our preferred path," Litvack said, adding that the city has always been supportive of the inland port project. "But we also recognize we have a very important role to play in protecting our community and protecting the residents of that area."16 comments on this story
Of the handful of frustrated west-side residents who attended Tuesday's press conference, Deeda Seed — who is also a campaigner with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity — interjected several times to express frustrations with the lack of dialogue with community members about environmental impacts of an inland port.
"We all need to talk together," Seed said, urging more discussions on air quality.
Terry Marasco, a member of Utah Moms for Clean Air, also weighed in, questioning "why should I have any confidence" in state leaders when SB234 was rushed through the Legislature.
Hughes argued the bill wasn't rushed through, and also said he was open to environmentally friendly initiatives, but wouldn't commit to a zero-emissions inland port.