Inland port legislation puts Salt Lake City leaders on opposite sides

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski stood virtually alone on Wednesday, at odds with most Republican state lawmakers and the Salt Lake City council as she pushed back against changes to the controversial inland port.

“This bill raises concerns that if state leaders don’t share the same values, they’ll overrule locally elected leaders,” said Biskupski as she spoke against HB2001, which made changes to the inland port authority legislation passed in the final hours of the 2018 session.

“Why is there a need for this in the first place?” said Biskupski referring to the port authority board which will exercise authority over the new facility in the city’s Northwest Quadrant. 

Biskupski had been negotiating with Gov. Gary Herbert since the end of the 2018 session to make changes to the bill. Those talks fell apart ahead of a planned special legislative session in May. In the wake of that failure, the Salt Lake City Council stepped in to negotiate changes to the legislation that addressed many of the same issues Biskupski was negotiating. They also secured a provision that put aside 10% of the taxes from the port for affordable housing. Biskupski completely withdrew from the inland port authority negotiations..

Biskupski said her objection to the bill stemmed from the lack of public input.

“The community I represent has been asking for a transparent process. We are not hearing from the community on this issue,” she said.

The legislature made that point for her. The lone public hearing on the new bill was Wednesday in the Joint Business and Labor Interim Committee. The discussion amongst lawmakers about the new language took up most of the time, leaving less than 25 minutes for public comment. Members of the public who showed up to speak to the changes were given a scant 60-seconds to make their point because of time constraints.

Then again, Biskupski was given multiple opportunities to join the negotiations between state leaders and the city council, and she declined.

Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, pressed Biskupski on her choice not to get involved in the process.

“It seems to me that many members of your council worked to find solutions,” said Schultz. “It’s disheartening to the process that you chose not to participate.”

Biskupski said she stayed out of negotiations because she felt the process was flawed and the outcome was pre-ordained.

“It became clear to me that Salt Lake City could not maintain land use or taxing authority. The bill still gives complete authority to the board on those issues. We need a new bill that respects local control,” she said.

Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, was unsympathetic to the mayor because she snubbed several invitations to bring her concerns to the table.

“You say there was no opportunity to weigh in, but you intentionally stayed away. The opportunity was there. The city council weighed in. They negotiated. You chose not to,” he said.

Biskupski has few allies on this issue. The seven members of the city council, led by council chair Erin Mendenhall, lined up unanimously behind the changes.

“We represent the same people that the Mayor does,” said Mendenhall. “It became clear that the state was moving forward. The train was leaving the station, and the bill that was already on the books would do irreparable harm to the city. We had the opportunity to jump into the negotiations, and we did.”

The internecine battle between the council and Mayor irked Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, who said the conflict is not healthy for the city.

“I’m frustrated. We have a mayor and city council speaking with eight different voices. We are not speaking with a single voice, and the city is being hurt because of that,” he said.

But City Councilmember James Rogers fired back that Biskupski’s reluctance to engage threatened to leave the city with a situation that was untenable.

“I’m grateful for these negotiations because, without them, we knew we were gonna get rolled,” said Rogers. “If you don’t have a seat at the dinner table, you become dinner.”

Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he’s happy that the city council decided to take a seat at the negotiating table, and he’s satisfied with the outcome.

“I learned in those discussions what the real pinch-point issues were. I had not had those articulated to me in that way before,” he said. “There was a level of trust that allowed us to speak openly and honestly to each other. It was incredibly important to have it done the way we have.”

During floor debate in the afternoon, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, delivered his usual stemwinder on the Senate floor when a controversial issue comes to the fore.

“In the Bible, King David was on a rooftop and looked across the city and saw a beautiful woman on another building and said, ‘I want that,'” said Dabakis. “The Legislature saw that piece of land and said I want that.”

While bringing up David and Bathsheba may be a tortured analogy – it’s not clear who would fill the role of Uriah the Hittite – Dabakis said the changes put forward are substantially better than what passed the legislature at the end of the 2018 session.

“Salt Lake City was emasculated by the legislature. Salt Lake City deserves an apology for the way they’ve been treated and the way the mayor has been treated. But, we’ve taken a catastrophe for Salt Lake City and hammered out a better deal,” said Dabakis.