Legislative Republicans nix proposal to shift state funding away from a controversial California coal port

Utah Capitol 18

Republicans on the legislature’s top budgeting committee beat back Democrats’ efforts on Tuesday to block state money from bailing out a controversial bankrupt coal port in Oakland and providing more money for Utah classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Executive Appropriations Committee approved plans to distribute $125 million in CARES Act funding during their meeting ahead of Thursday’s special session. 

The spending includes $35 million for a commercial rental assistance program administered through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, another $25 million for capital improvements at Utah state parks and $15 million to boost lab capacity.

There’s also $7.4 million to fund disability services for Utahns currently on the waiting list. They also approved $15 million for pay for classroom supplies and enhancements, including PPE as a prevention to the coronavirus. Legislators also earmarked $8 million to boost enrollment at charter schools. 

Those funding priorities still need approval from the full legislature, which should come during Thursday’s session.

Later during Tuesday’s meeting, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, proposed moving $53 million out of a fund used for transportation and economic development in rural areas and repurposing those funds to pay for teacher training, classroom technology and school nurses in those same rural areas. 

Why $53 million.

King says he is afraid those funds will go to settle the bankruptcy case of a controversial coal port in Oakland, California that Utah has been trying to develop for years. King said he objected to using state money to pay off the port’s creditors.

“These funds would be taken back and would be designated for use to focus on the needs of rural Utah,” said King. “They would be used for educational needs, healthcare and economic development needs.”

“We need to take back the ability to decide how those funds are spent,” King added.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that the owners of the bankrupt port, which Utah lawmakers have been hoping to use to ship coal from the state to overseas markets, are relying on a $20 million infusion of cash from Utah lawmakers to pay off their creditors. The company is counting on a $53 million total investment from Utah to make the coal port viable.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, opposed the move, saying the state cannot merely yank those funds away.

“Whether you support the port or not, that money needs to go back to the rural areas,” said Vickers. “It’s not for the legislature to play Big Brother with.”

“The state would be upset if the feds came in and spent our money,” added House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper. “Those local communities would be understandably upset if we took this money away from them.”

King’s gambit failed on a straight party-line vote. 

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, then attempted to add $5 million in funding for Utah schools to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic when children return to class this month.

“This would go to buy desks for kindergartners. Most of them sit at tables, which is not recommended because of the coronavirus. It would also pay for teachers to get some professional development so they can learn innovative ways to teach during these times,” said Moss. 

Republicans on the committee balked at the extra funding, preferring to hold that money back if needed later. 

“Putting $5 million in now ties our hands for the future,” said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton. “If we allocate that money, it will be spent. I’d rather keep it in the bank.”

Moss’s motion also failed on a party-line vote, with the 8 Democrats voting in favor and the 12 Republicans voting against.