SALT LAKE CITY — Even though the U.S. Olympic Committee has yet to decide when Salt Lake City will bid for a Winter Games, backers are pressing the 2019 Legislature to pass an agreement protecting the city against any losses from hosting.
"We've got the ball rolling," outgoing Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said of the proposed indemnification agreement between the state and Salt Lake City being drafted.
He said the agreement would be similar to a deal approved in 1991, just before Salt Lake City lost the 1998 Winter Games to Nagano, Japan. That same agreement was in place when Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Games.
Niederhauser, co-chairman of the Salt Lake Executive Committee for the Games, said getting that done sooner rather than later is a priority now that the USOC has selected Salt Lake City over Denver to bid for a future Winter Games.
While that's likely to be for 2030, USOC leaders have stressed that decision hasn't been made and have been careful to describe any Winter Games bid as "possible" or "potential" at this point.
The International Olympic Committee won't name the host of the 2030 Winter Games until 2023. Other cities said to be considering a bid include Sapporo, Japan, and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Deeda Seed, who has a number of concerns about hosting another Olympics including the impact on the environment, questioned the need to move quickly on an indemnification deal.
She said still to be answered is whether the previous agreement violated a provision in the Utah Constitution prohibiting the state from lending credit to a "private individual or corporate enterprise or undertaking."
The issue of how privately funded Olympic organizers fit into that definition was set aside in 1999, after then-Gov. Mike Leavitt pledged to honor the agreement amid the scandal surrounding cash and gifts given to IOC members by Salt Lake bidders.
"It was a major concern for us," Seed said of the agreement, which turned over decision-making authority to the state in exchange for indemnifying Salt Lake City from any losses associated with the Olympics.
While the 2002 Winter Games were a financial success, Seed said this time around could be different. She said it still makes sense for the state to assume the risk, but the terms of that arrangement need to be discussed more thoroughly.
"Salt Lake City residents need to understand what that means, really think about who has control over this," she said. "We need to have the conversation and we haven't. All we've had is some cheerleading."
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers "have to make sure we take a hard look at the details of this." He said the bipartisan support for another Olympics calls for, "without any sort of emotion, an objective analysis."
Still, King said he expects lawmakers to approve an agreement even though there may need to be some changes to the original document, now more than 25 years old.
"I think that it is, by and large, a good investment to make," the Democratic leader said. "I think my knee-jerk reaction is that we would be willing as a state to indemnify the city."
Senate President-elect Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the agreement already appears to have broad-based support.
"The big thing that makes it easier is we have the venues," Adams said, which have been maintained since the 2002 Games from Olympic profits and are set to get a $40 million upgrade over the next 10 years from the Legislature.
He said he hopes a future Winter Games will not only "be profitable and indemnification won't be needed, it will actually leave us in a position that we were in before," able to continue to fund venues including the ski jumps.
Niederhauser said he's comfortable with the risk involved.
"There are risks to the state and the risks to the city are minimized by the agreement. I can't say in fact it leaves them risk-free, but I know it doesn't leave the state risk-free," he said. "I think they'll be some questions."
Even before the USOC's mid-December announcement, Niederhauser and other legislative leaders signed a letter from Gov. Gary Herbert to Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski expressing their intent to enter into an indemnification agreement.
"We would anticipate establishing a process to review the 1991 agreement, modify it as necessary, and prepare a final copy for execution to begin in the next few months," the Nov. 13 letter stated.13 comments on this story
The letter was acknowledged by the Salt Lake City Council later in November, as part of a resolution supporting an agreement with the USOC about the process for bidding for a Winter Games.
Niederhauser said attorneys for the city, the Legislature and the governor are already working on an indemnification agreement in anticipation of introducing it during the upcoming legislative session set to start in late January.
The issue will also be a topic at the first meeting of the Salt Lake Executive Committee for the Games since the USOC's decision, expected to be held in the next few weeks.