SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would allow the Utah Inland Port Authority to branch out to areas outside of Salt Lake County steamrolled through a major legislative hurdle Friday.
Despite pushback from some environmental groups and concerned residents, the Utah House of Representatives voted 61-11 to approve HB433, a bill that would allow the port authority to expand outside its already 16,000-acre jurisdiction and partner with willing communities — including rural areas eager to maximize export opportunities for coal, oil, gas, hay or other products.
"This bill has always been intended to benefit the whole state of Utah," said its sponsor, House Majority Leader Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who is also an Inland Port Authority board member.
The aim, Gibson said, is to create a "hub-and-spoke model" to allow "satellite offices" to be created when rural communities outside of the port's Salt Lake jurisdiction want to partner with it.
Gibson said it would help rural areas, such as Carbon County or Duchesne County, save shipping costs by clearing international customs without having to send products first to Salt Lake City. And, Gibson argued, the bill would help reduce air pollution by "limiting" trucks and trains commuting through Utah's capital.
"We have many good businesses out in these areas that … need to get their product (out)," Gibson said, and the port authority would help with that.
The bill faced pushback from some Democrats, but not all. The issue split the House Democrats much as it has Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the Salt Lake City Council.
The council, after negotiating with Gibson to make changes to the bill to allow a city to bring a lawsuit against the port authority — but only if a city's legislative body gives approval — supported the bill. Previously, the bill blocked any lawsuit brought by a city.
Biskupski, however, has refused to engage, standing firm on her position not to negotiate on a bill that she says has been "designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature's will." Biskupski has said the inland port will inevitably "have its day in court," though she has not explicitly stated the city itself intends to sue.
In a caucus meeting the day before, House Democrats discussed the port authority bill and the "really awkward position," as House Minority Assistant Whip Angela Romero described it, Salt Lake Democrats were in when the mayor and City Council are split on the issue.
"I want everyone to make up their own independent decision on this," Romero told House Democrats in the caucus. She did say she would vote against the bill because her constituents have expressed deep concerns about the port authority's overall impact on the environment and air quality.
Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, also said she planned to vote against the bill, expressing concerns about "government overreach" and "not enough accountability" on the port authority's 11-member board.
But Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, said she supported the bill, noting that she saw the hub-and-spoke model as one that would spread the port's impacts on not just Salt Lake City.
"I think this is better than what is in the original bill," Kwan said.
One of the port's loudest critics, Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman and a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, issued a statement after Friday's House vote, saying the legislation will "harm" the entire state.
"The public needs to know that — contrary to statements by Rep. Gibson — this bill creates the financial tools to provide tax breaks to private industry, particularly the fossil fuel industry," Seed said. "This legislation will supersize the negative impacts of the proposed port in Salt Lake City and will spread the harm throughout the state."4 comments on this story
On the House floor, Gibson said any new tax revenue generated by the port would stay within the area it was created and wouldn't be used to expand into other areas. Still, the port authority has the power to capture future tax revenue, which can be used as a tool to incentivize development or fund infrastructure.
Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, threw her support behind the bill, saying Carbon County will benefit greatly from partnering with the inland port.
"We are ready, we are able, and we are excited for this," Watkins said.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.