SALT LAKE CITY -- At a news conference on Utah's Capitol Hill, House Speaker Greg Hughes and Sen. Jim Dabakis joked with each other about how they found common ground and came up with some ideas to help restart negotiations over the inland port.
Judging from the reaction in the crowd, they were the only ones laughing.
Before a packed room made up of members of the Salt Lake City Council, community, environmental activists and lawmakers blindsided by the closed-door talks, Speaker Hughes and Sen. Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, outlined their ideas to reach a deal between the legislature and Salt Lake City over the inland port.
The inland port, which has been called the biggest economic development project in state history, will be built in Salt Lake City's Northwest Quadrant. It's where UPS has opened a massive hub, and Amazon is building a fulfillment center. The inland port would be a combination of air, road and rail to create an import-export center. Salt Lake City has argued that residents would foot the bill for infrastructure improvements, but get none of the tax benefits. Mayor Jackie Biskupski has also expressed fears the legislature is just grabbing land that belongs to the city.
After they argued about it on a Sunday morning TV show appearance, the two said they got to talking and came up with some ideas.
"Honestly, this is how public policy happens," Speaker Hughes told the crowd. "You’ve got to find that common ground."
Sen. Dabakis pointed out the Utah State Legislature passed a bill creating an inland port authority with very little of what Salt Lake City wanted in it. The governor signed it, but pledged to call a special session if lawmakers could reach a new deal with the city. After that, negotiations stalled.
"The port is going to come and the process now has led us to a nasty place," Sen. Dabakis said.
Those ideas include:
- Dedicated affordable housing money.
- A bigger cut for Salt Lake City when it comes to tax revenue.
- More environmental protections, including train cars carrying coal being covered and wetland protections near the Great Salt Lake.
- An agreement to keep the Salt Lake City International Airport under city control and not the state.
Sen. Dabakis emphasized these were the ideas of he and Speaker Hughes, not anyone else.
Others were fuming they were never involved in the closed-door talks, including the lawmakers who actually represent that area.
"I would have liked to have been at the table," said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City. "He doesn’t represent that district. I represent that district and I have been the one listening to to my constituents."
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, who represents the west side of the city, said she was not happy with Sen. Dabakis conducting closed-door talks and called his news conference "more of a show."
"The irony is that Sen. Dabakis has been so critical for the last six years about the Republicans in the majority party making deals without transparency, without open meetings and look what just happened today!" she said of her colleague.
Sen. Dabakis insisted he was speaking for the people he represents in his district.
"To all of you, I’m getting all your texts and emails and calling me names and doing things and you weren’t involved in the process or whatever," he said, addressing his critics at the news conference. "This is how we kind of move forward."
Some have questioned the political ambitions of both men. Speaker Hughes appointed himself to the Inland Port Authority Board, citing his institutional knowledge of the project. He has been contemplating a run for governor. Sen. Dabakis has been rumored to be considering challenging Mayor Biskupski next year.
"It is not related to this at all," Speaker Hughes said of his future plans.
"If I was running for mayor, I’d run away from this issue, believe me," Sen. Dabakis jumped in. "I want the city involved!"
Some members of the Salt Lake City Council found out details just ahead of the news conference. Community activists like former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Deeda Seed complained that issues like air quality were not being considered.
"If we’re going to find solutions, personalities aside, am I supposed to call everybody and get ‘em all at the table?" he asked.
"Yes!" she responded.
Sen. Dabakis told her and other community activists to get involved with the legislature by "cajoling and begging."
"Begging? Oh, Jesus," Seed snapped back. "How about litigation?"
For their part, Salt Lake City leaders appeared open to discussing the ideas presented. Mayor Biskupski's deputy chief of staff, David Litvak, said what was said today is better than what the legislature passed but the "devil is in the details."
"Poplar Grove, Glendale, they should not have to compromise on fire services or police services or other public services in order to provide services to the Northwest Quadrant," he said.
The mayor's office would not rule out a potential lawsuit over the bill passed by the legislature.
Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said she believed Sen. Dabakis' efforts were ultimately helpful.
"I think this is helpful because the conversation was not happening between the city and the state in any productive way," she told FOX 13. "Here we are being invited back to the table."
Gov. Gary Herbert's office said it was keeping an eye on the talks.
"We appreciate all efforts to find solutions. If the city and the legislature can find ways to improve the inland port law, our office is eager to move forward," Herbert spokesman Paul Edwards said.