Coalition Challenges Taxpayer Bailout for Inland Port

 Members of the Stop the Polluting Port coalition are protesting SB 243 (Political Subdivisions Amendments), an 11th-hour “inland port fund” bill with a reported $75 million appropriation.  Late Friday afternoon, members of the Coalition learned that Utah legislative leaders had unveiled SB 243, a bill sponsored by Senator Jerry Stevenson to create an “inland port fund.” According to House Majority Leader Rep. Frances Gibson, the total for this fund would be $75 million.

The bill is scheduled for a public hearing at 8:10 am on Monday morning in the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee.  Stop the Polluting Port coalition members plan to speak at the hearing Monday morning during public comment, asking legislators to forgo creation and funding of this fund.

The bill would create of a 5-member funding board (2 appointed by the Governor, 1 each by the House and Senate, and one by the Community Impact Board – the body which oversees the distribution of Mineral Lease Act funds) which would have the power to make very low-interest loans to private businesses to assist with private business purposes, in coordination with the Utah Inland Port Authority.  Thus, a small, select group of people making decisions with huge implications for communities throughout Utah. These low-interest loans are intended to further the development of satellite ports throughout the state but can also be used for the proposed SLC port.  The bill also allows the board to avoid public scrutiny by holding meetings electronically, without an anchor location, even after the pandemic is over.

“Legislators want to throw a huge, statewide lifeline to an unelected agency stymied by air quality problems at its Salt Lake City hub,” said Stan Holmes, Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club Board Member, adding that, “This is on top of a proposed appropriation that has almost tripled to $8 million, in addition to perks squirreled away in other bills the Legislature is considering. It’s an unmitigated taxpayer rip-off and must be stopped.”

“Why has major Utah Inland Port legislation twice been introduced in the last days of the session?” asked Ann O’Connell, League of Women Voters Salt Lake.  “The 2018 bill creating the port authority was first heard in committee the Friday before the last week. This year, SB 243 will be introduced this Monday, five hectic days before the 2021 session ends. If the port is so important to Utah’s future, why are these bills not thoroughly and publicly debated?  And why so secretive.”

In the 3 years since the creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority under similar rushed circumstances, the community still lacks answers about the plan for the SLC ports, and satellite ports, and the environmental consequences of massive warehouse and freight distribution development on neighboring communities.

“SB 243 is proof that the State has not learned anything from the dismal experience of the past three years,” said Dorothy P. Owen, Chair of the Westpointe Community Council.  “The “greatest economic development project in Utah’s history” has repeatedly proven unable to live up to all the hype.  Now the project has rejected all pretense of public accountability while promoting unrealistic expectations among deserving rural communities.  We too were promised sustainable, well-paying jobs for local people, without harmful health and environmental impacts and at no public cost to taxpayers.   But the evidence supporting these claims never materializes. Many are angered by this ugly effort, but we mourn, not only for our neighborhood but for the residents of so-called “satellite communities.”

Despite being unable to answer questions about what is being planned either in the proposed Salt Lake City port location, or proposed satellite locations, legislative leaders are ready to commit $75 million.  In addition, several counties have expressed interest in developing “ports” that include fossil fuel transloading facilities.

“It is beyond frustrating that the leaders of Utah’s legislature continue to create an alternative universe where dirty energy should be the backbone of our future economy,” said Brian Moench, Board President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.  “Dredging up a last-minute scheme to make Utah taxpayers subsidize dirty energy corporations is corrupt, abysmal judgement, and a denial of reality. Utah voters should be outraged.”

Instead of creating an “inland port fund” and seeding it with $75 million in tax dollars to spend on speculative projects benefiting private interests, these tax dollars should be used to directly help Utahns who are suffering because of the pandemic.

“At a time when so many in our State are struggling with their health, their employment and the education of their children, the Legislature’s continuing lack of compassion for and commitment to our suffering citizens is appalling,” said Richard Holman, Chair of the Westside Coalition. “The continuing perks, like this $75M pork barrel fund, destined for wealthy developers and overseen by those who may or may not be independent and objective smacks of corruption on the grandest level.”

“In the “grand” tradition of the Utah Inland Port Authority, this bill would create another appointed, unaccountable body empowered to spend millions of taxpayer dollars without taxpayer or even legislative approval,” said Capitol Hill Neighborhood activist David Scheer.  “It would also allow groups of property owners to issue bonds backed by the State of Utah (that is, you and me) to finance their projects- again without taxpayer or legislative approval. The legislators behind this anti-democratic bill want to cut the public out of spending decisions because they know we do not want to subsidize developers and fossil fuel companies. Every Utahn should be outraged and demand that this bill be defeated.”

“We find it curiously inconsistent that a legislature dominated by people professing to dislike big government, while complaining about government overreach and the importance of local control — chooses to violate these principles first by passing legislation in 2018 that created the Port Authority, and now working to pass a bill that disregards the wishes of the citizenry, squanders taxpayer funds, promotes opacity and grants further power to benefit the wealthy,” said Heather Dove, President of Great Salt Lake Audubon.