Hughes, Dabakis meet skepticism in addressing Inland Port concerns

Welcome to the political mud fight that is the inland port, scheduled to be built in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

A very public exhibition of the raw feelings surrounding the port came on display Tuesday morning when GOP House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, called a Capitol Hill press conference to talk about their up-to-now private conversations over the controversial port – whose founding bill was passed in the waning days of the 2018 Legislature.

The press had a hard time asking questions as several city/neighborhood representatives accused Hughes of bad faith in the passage of the original bill – not addressing air quality, banning of coal and quality of life issues.

Hughes and Dabakis – the odd couple of Utah politics – said time and again that the rough agreements the two of them have worked out is a starting point for further negotiations, not a compromise bill ready for a special session.

A tentatively-scheduled May special session to reform the new law was cancelled by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders when little, if any, progress had been made with Salt Lake City leaders, especially Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

News around the inland port started breaking Monday when a list of the new port authority board members was released by Herbert – showing that Hughes as speaker had appointed himself to the new board.

Hughes said he did that because he has “institutional knowledge” about the many years of debate over such a port in Utah.

But politics – partisan and personal – are clearly having an effect here.

Hughes is retiring from the House, looking to run for governor in 2020.

Dabakis is retiring from the Senate, looking to run for Salt Lake mayor, against Biskupski, in 2019.

Confronted with those ambitions Tuesday, both men said their work now on the port is separate from any future political plans either may have.

But, it is true, that both men would like some kind of political platform over the next two years – and the port may be such a perch.

The arguing points over the port are mostly technical – although important to several citizen interest groups – including Biskupski’s administration.

They include several issues that Hughes and Dabakis said their recent conversations touch upon.

Dabakis listed a few quickly:

— Reworking the bill’s tax increment financing so it is more favorable to the city, county and Salt Lake City School District.

— Ensuring that a 10 percent RDA allotment toward affordable housing remains, no matter what future Legislatures say.

— Agreeing to “cover” any transport or storage of coal to and from the port, helping with air quality.

— Requiring the port to meet current or even enhanced federal environmental standards.

— Walling off wetlands north of the port to ensure no future development there.

Biskupski did not attend the press conference, but several Salt Lake City Council members (who met with Hughes and Dabakis earlier in the day) did.

Also present were members of Biskupski’s top staff.

David Litvack, a former Democratic leader in the Utah House and now a deputy chief of staff to Biskupski, told after the meeting that Biskupski just found out about the Hughes/Dabakis agreements last night.

Litvack said the mayor appreciates the discussions, and she has been reaching out to top lawmakers and the governor off and on for some time over the new port law.

“We welcome the dialogue and this new (Hughes/Dabakis) effort,” said Litvack.

As some of the rather hostile questions/statements made during the press event showed, there are real community concerns over the port, Litvack noted.

“We take very seriously the concerns over air quality, the environment and taxes; we want them adequately addressed,” said Litvack.

City officials and community activists have been talking lawsuits from several months.

Hughes said he sees little to be gained by that, except to stall the port’s construction and cost various taxpayers money.

But talks seemed stalled, said Hughes, and he and Dabakis starting talking solutions after both recently appeared on a local TV station’s public affairs program, where the port issues were raised.

One issue that seemed to stick out is the possibility of Utah coal being mined in southern Utah and shipped to the port – where it can be collected and moved out on rails to west coast shipping ports.

Dabakis said “it is stupid” to even talk about Utah coal being shipped across the world – for many reasons, including that coal is dying as a industrial fuel source.

But, said Dabakis, the Legislature makes such policies – and the Legislature is controlled by Republicans.

Hughes said he’s heard that Japan is planning dozens of new, high-tech coal-fired electrical plants.

Chinese coal is dirty – a lot of sulfur. Utah coal is “clean,” low-sulfur. Why, said Hughes, would environmentally-concerned Utahns want to stop “clean” Utah coal from being burned across the globe, when some kind of coal is going to be burned?

“I’m not going to predict how this” – the Hughes/Dabakis compromise points – “turns out,” said Hughes.

As the new port authority board starts meeting – with Hughes as a member (chairman?) – compromise items will be discussed.

“I would hope we can define the statute sooner rather than later,” he said.

“It will take a combined effort” – of the state, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and others to get it done.

But, said Hughes, the state will have a defining roll in the whole process – for no other such foreign trade zone port is run by a city, or even a county. They are run by boards set up by state law – as Utah’s new law does.

And the port is coming, said both Dabakis and Hughes, whether Salt Lake City’s Democratic administration wants one or not. (Litvack said the city wants such a port, but one properly taxed and controlled.)

Now, said Dabakis, the “odd couple’s” agreements/talking points will be reviewed by many other groups and individuals – all with the intent of getting an agreement before lawmakers sooner, rather than later.

The clock is ticking on Hughes and Dabakis – both leave office the end of December.