SALT LAKE CITY — Days after Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski filed a lawsuit challenging the state's creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority, the Legislature passed a bill that would allow the port to expand into rural areas of the state, sending it to Gov. Gary Herbert's desk.
The votes to approve the bill — 21-5 in the Senate and 57-10 in the House — came after a final tweak to HB433 in the Senate that appeared to needle the mayor for her suit.
Biskupski filed her legal challenge Monday, citing a need to act before the Utah Legislature passed HB433, which before Wednesday included language that would prohibit a mayor from legally challenging the port authority's creation without permission from a city council.
On the Senate floor, port authority board member and Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, pushed an amendment to the bill to remove that language.
Seemingly as a jab at Biskupski, bill sponsor House Majority Leader Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, drew scattered chuckles from the House floor when he said "last night I was laying in bed" when he made the decision to ask Buxton make the amendment and "allow the mayor to sue the inland port."
But Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke told the Deseret News the amendment had "nothing to do with the mayor suing or not," and rather it was a result of discussions with Gibson that determined the language was "not necessary." After Biskupski's suit was filed, the language essentially became moot, he said.
"My position and the council's position has been we can do this without a lawsuit. The port is happening," Luke said. "That was a decision that the mayor was supportive of until her negotiations fell apart last year, and then all of a sudden she's opposed to it."
Luke said the council is still "looking over" the lawsuit. Asked if the council plans to intervene in the courts, he said, "we're looking at all options."
"What (the mayor) chooses to do is up to her," Luke said. "Our position has been consistent from the start. We just want to make sure that whatever happens, we're able to mitigate those impacts as much as possible."
The mayor's spokesman, Matthew Rojas, said the bill's amendment has no impact on Biskuspki's legal challenge, and she has "no intention of withdrawing the lawsuit."
"The removed language was not a part of the lawsuit," Rojas said. "Rather, the mayor is challenging the heart of the legislation, which usurps the city’s land use and taxing authority, which the mayor and others believe violates the Utah Constitution."
The Salt Lake City Council and Biskupski have clashed since last year, after council members negotiated with state leaders to make changes to the legislation that created the port authority, despite city protests. Biskupski, after negotiations with Herbert stalled, has since stood firm on her position not to negotiate on a bill she says has been "designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature's will."
A statement issued from Paul Edwards, Herbert's deputy chief of staff, indicated the governor is supportive of the bill, but hinted at future changes.
“The inland port is a once-in-a-generation economic development opportunity for the entire state, and because of its importance, we suspect that we will be modifying and improving it for years to come," Edwards said. "Like much legislation, this has improved as it has gone through the deliberative process. We appreciate how this legislation extends throughout the state increased opportunities for commercial development.”
Gibson's bill allows the port authority to expand its reach outside of its already 16,000-acre jurisdiction spanning west of the Salt Lake City International Airport and partner with other cities, counties or landowners.
The aim of the bill is to create a "hub-and-spoke" model, Gibson has said, where the where the main hub would exist in Salt Lake City, and spokes would branch out to other rural areas where exports such as hay or coal could clear international customs without being hauled all the way to Utah's capital.
Gibson's bill surfaced after officials from rural areas began expressing a desire to partner with the Utah Inland Port Authority to maximize export business.
Some environmental groups and concerned residents have protested HB433, worried it will only increase truck traffic and aggravate Wasatch Front air quality while increasing exports of fossil fuels, while others groups have taken up a neutral position on the bill after negotiating some clean energy incentives within the legislation.
Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman and a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity who has been a loud critic of the port, decried HB433's final approval.
"Unfortunately, this legislation expands the reach of the port authority, an unelected, unaccountable body, which now has the power to give tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry and other private entities throughout the state," Deed said, contending the "goal of the port authority seems to be to "subsidize the development of fossil fuel transloading facilities."
"These types of facilities are dangerous, handling volatile materials, contributing to air pollution and causing other harms to neighboring communities," Seed said. "As Utah faces the consequences of polluted air and climate change, the last thing we should be doing is subsidizing industries that will contribute to both."
But Derek Miller, port authority board chairman and president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, thanked the bill's sponsors, the Salt Lake City Council, Utah's rural communities, and other groups who contributed to HB433's drafting.
"This bill will advance the Utah Inland Port project and benefit Utah and its residents," Miller said. "HB433 will expand economic opportunities statewide, encourage investment and accountability for clean air, and open trade to international areas for our growing state.”
The Utah House on Wednesday also gave final passage to SB144, a bill sponsored by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, which would establish baseline environmental conditions in the inland port area and enable environmental impacts to be monitored throughout the port's development and the airport's expansion.2 comments on this story
"This will help the public … understand that we're serious about doing air quality things with inland port and setting a basis and really truly working to make sure that our inland port is a quality port with quality air controls," Buxton said on the Senate floor earlier this week.
Luke said the Salt Lake City Council's "paramount focus from the start has been on both the environmental and the financial costs" of the port" and "our position all along has been to work directly with the Legislature to try to make incremental changes that are in the best interest of Salt Lake City residents.
"Both of these bills do that," Luke said.