SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker from Salt Lake City has unveiled a bill meant to help mitigate the Utah Inland Port’s future impacts on her west-side community — and give Salt Lake City’s mayor and school district a seat on the board.
Sen. Luz Escamilla knows there’s an “uphill battle” for her bill, but she’s hoping at least some of its elements will find favor with Utah’s GOP majority.
“I know how to count,” the Salt Lake City Democrat told the Deseret News on Monday. “It’s hard, but I’m confident. It’s good public policy.”
It’s the first piece of legislation filed this session to again crack open the Utah Inland Port Authority’s statute. Another, sponsored by a House GOP leader, is still in the works.
Her SB112, filed Monday, would require the port authority to study the development and implementation of a “mitigation fund” — or a mechanism to allow the port authority to capture money, whether it be a fee or a tax, to set aside to address community impacts. It would also require the authority to establish minimum environmental impact standards that a developer would have to meet in order to qualify for tax increment or financing.
Those standards would target environmental impacts related to hazardous material management, storm water contamination prevention, dust mitigation and waste reduction, according to the bill.
Escamilla said her bill takes a “carrot approach” to incentivize environmentally friendly practices within the port authority’s project areas. She said it was drafted in collaboration with port authority officials.
“If you’re going to have the most green inland port in the country … that language reflects what we’re trying to promote,” Escamilla said, referring to comments from Jack Hedge, the port authority’s executive director, expressing intent to build a sustainable inland port unlike anything that exists in the U.S.
The bill would also add two seats to the Utah Inland Port Authority’s current 11-member board to bring representation that city leaders say has been lacking on a board heavy with state appointees. One seat would for the Salt Lake City’s mayor or her appointee, and one would be for the Salt Lake City School District.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall — who beat Escamilla in last year’s mayoral election — backed Escamilla’s bill in a prepared statement Monday.
“Sen. Escamilla’s bill tackles some issues that are incredibly important to us,” Mendenhall said. “Creating a spot on the Inland Port Authority Board for the Salt Lake City mayor is something we absolutely support, and it’s imperative to ensure we have the environmental objectives necessary to make a clean and sustainable port.”
The Salt Lake City School District — which has for years been frustrated about the lack of representation on the port board — is estimated to be the taxing entity most impacted by the port authority jurisdiction. City officials have estimated that over the next 25 years as the inland port — envisioned to be a global trade hub — is built out, the port authority will take control of more than $1.4 billion in new tax revenue, of which $581 million would be new tax revenue for the Salt Lake City School District.
“As the largest taxing entity impacted by the port, it makes sense for the Salt Lake City School District to have a seat on the board, and we thank Senator Escamilla for her tireless advocacy on behalf of the school children of Salt Lake City,” said Salt Lake School District Superintendent Lexi Cunningham. “We look forward to continuing to work with legislative leaders and inland port leadership on this issue.”
Escamilla called the seat for the school district “critical” to the board’s makeup to represent not only the taxes that otherwise would have been used for education, but also future generations.
“Not only are they being impacted because of the tax component, but those children are the ones that are going to have to live with whatever happens,” Escamilla said.
The mitigation fund would also be “critical” to not only her district, but other areas that might have a satellite port location, she said. If the port authority establishes that mechanism to offset impact on communities, that money could be used to build open space or whatever neighborhoods think would be beneficial.
“The sky’s the limit on what you can do,” she said.
To Escamilla, the seat for Salt Lake City’s mayor is a no brainer and “should have been there from day one.” As city-state relations have improved with the election of Mendenhall, Escamilla said she doesn’t see much pushback for that part of her bill. But the school district may be a harder fight.
“I’ve heard a lot of concerns from members in the Legislature about making too big of a board that’s dysfunctional, and so I will continue to have those conversations,” Escamilla said. “It’s a pretty good practice because they’re the (biggest tax stakeholder). … To me, it makes sense, so I hope they’ll hear that argument, but I know there are other inland port bills circulating.”
House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, is sponsoring a yet-to-be-filed bill related to the inland port. He has indicated to the Deseret News that bill will include components related to the board’s makeup, as well as other negotiations with city leaders seeking concessions related to tax and land use authority. He has declined to discuss specifics as the bill continues to be drafted, but has stated the working relationship with Mendenhall has been positive.
Escamilla said it’s possible her bill will mesh with Gibson’s.
“So long as we get the policy, I don’t care,” she said.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said Monday he hadn’t seen Escamilla’s bill yet, but noted Gibson was still working on his bill, so lawmakers will “figure out how to stay on the same page.”
Wilson was noncommittal about whether he would be supportive of any aspects of Escamilla’s bill. He said lawmakers have talked with Mendenhall about getting the mayor a seat on the board and he thinks it’s “important that the city” is involved. “But this is a statewide economic development tool, so we’ve got to manage both interests,” he said.
Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer of the group Stop the Polluting Port, said Escamilla’s bill has “good intent,” but she worries it lacks teeth.
“The concern is that it will end up being relatively meaningless,” Seed said, noting that it leaves it up to the port authority to hash out specific environmental standards of how a mitigation fund would be set up. “There aren’t really any teeth in it. It’s just entirely depending on people doing the right thing.”
Seed said it would be positive to see a seat for the mayor and the school district, but her and her group’s position is still to “see this whole thing repealed.”
“This sort of window dressing tinkering doesn’t really address the fundamental problems we have, which go to how the whole thing was initiated to start with,” she said, adding that any mitigation funding may not be enough to mitigate all of a port authority’s harms.
Proposing to use money to reduce harm “begs the question: Why don’t you reduce the harm by not doing this?” she said.
Still, Seed acknowledged Escamilla is “making an effort on behalf of the community.”
“Of course we appreciate that,” she said, “but the problem is the tool that she has is an eyedropper when really we need a bucket.”