SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature approved changes to the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority law during Wednesday’s special session — easily winning support from GOP lawmakers, but dividing the Democrats.
Discord between Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and her own City Council on negotiations with state leaders remained deep and bitter, resulting in some minority legislators choosing who to side with — their mayor or their council.
Ultimately, only a handful of Democrats ended up voting against the bill, which reshaped the port authority’s boundaries and added some concessions to the city for land use decisions, among other changes.
After a few minor amendments, the final version of HB2001 passed the House 62-5 and the Senate 22-2.
While City Council leaders applauded HB2001 as a compromise to quell the bulk of the city’s concerns with ultimate land use and tax authority, Biskupski argued the bill still leaves “many unanswered questions” and said it still didn’t fully address the city’s main concerns.
And prior to floor time, during the only public hearing scheduled for the bill the morning before the Legislature was scheduled to vote, concerned residents continued to protest the rushed process.
“No city, especially the capital city, should roll over and allow for this,” Biskupksi said in front of the Interim Business and Labor Committee.
Rather than a “clean up and correction to a bad bill,” Biskupski called for state and city leaders to “start over from a place of true and open dialogue.” She said her concerns should be “shared by every city and town in Utah” because the bill continues to set “an unprecedented standard for the state to override the wishes” of cities.
But Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall, alongside other council members and with the backing of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, thanked state leaders for negotiating to make a bad bill better, she said.
“The draft bill isn’t perfect,” Mendenhall said, but she added “it makes substantial improvements to the concerns of Salt Lake City” around tax increment, land use authority and other issues.
The bill was scheduled at the end of an interim agenda, preceded by several other topics. After House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, presented the bill and fielded questions from the committee, roughly only 20 minutes remained for public comments.
Some speakers’ time was limited to 60 seconds, drawing fury from community members wanting to speak out against the port and its creation process.
“This is our point,” shouted out Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, who has been helping spearhead community pushback on the port. “You’re making our point.”
“The process has been horrible,” Seed said. “And the example of that is what we’re seeing today, the fact that we’re having to rush through public comments.”
After the hearing, Biskupski and City Council leaders worked to lobby votes in the Senate and House minority caucus.
“The bill needs to be killed,” Biskupski said in the Senate Minority Caucus, urging legislators to vote against HB2001. She argued the Utah Inland Port Authority board would still have the power to ultimately usurp land use authority and would still be able to control 100 percent of the project area’s tax increment, regardless of changes that add in provisions to give the city more say before land use appeals would fall to the board.
“Is it perfect? No way is it perfect,” Mendenhall said, but she said the bill puts the city on stronger footing to lobby for more improvement in the future.
The Senate Minority Caucus became heated when the City Council came in to lobby for votes. Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, became audibly frustrated, his voice rising to a shout.
“Is this a war against the mayor or is this to fix the inland port?” Davis said, expressing frustration with the divide between the council and the mayor.
“Read the bill, senator,” City Councilman Charlie Luke interjected.
“The city cannot speak with eight voices,” Davis said.
“We’re speaking with two, senator,” Luke said.
Davis pointed his finger at Luke as he verbally jabbed back.
“As a city resident, I am really upset about the fact that you can’t get along with the mayor, or the mayor can’t get along with you,” Davis said. “I’m really upset with that. The city has never operated this way. Ever.”
Like the council and the mayor, Democratic senators were also divided. Unlike Davis, Sen. Jim Dabakis backed City Council negotiations, arguing HB2001 would be “better than the status quo.
This story will be updated.