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Utah lawmakers change road funds formula for cities, counties, again

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers changed a complicated formula for distributing gas tax revenue to cities and counties for a third time in hopes of making it more fair across the state.

Gov. Gary Herbert called a special session of the Legislature to address the issue after the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties told legislative leaders last month that they had worked out a solution after months of negotiation.

"This is what you’ve agreed to," Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, told the cities and counties associations during the Transportation Interim Committee meeting on Wednesday. "The Legislature is not going to be sucked in again, right?"

Lincoln Shurtz, Utah Association of Counties governmental affairs director, and Cameron Diehl, Utah League of Cities and Towns government relations director, told lawmakers their organizations unanimously support the compromise.

The Legislature unanimously passed HB4002, which shifts $5 million in state general and transportation funds this year to mostly rural counties, some of which have started road projects that they wouldn't be able to finish under the previous formula.

It moves $5.6 million to Wasatch Front cities to make up for some of the money they would have not received. The bill also adjusts the formula moving forward.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Wood Cross, voted in favor of the bill but said he didn't like raiding the state's general fund for $3 million that lawmakers will need in what is expected to be a tight 2017 budget.

Cities and counties were promised a 17.5 percent increase in road funds as a result of the Legislature raising the gas tax by a nickel in 2015. But some of them were actually losing money under the revamped system.

A dozen rural counties that received less than 1 percent growth per year in transportation funding since lawmakers last raised the fuel tax in 1996 lost a total of $2 million.

"The calculations were off," said Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, who sponsored the tax hike.

Lawmakers tried to correct that in a bill earlier this year that would have given those counties a 100 percent increase in revenue to reflect the amount the transportation fund had grown since 1996.

But catching those counties up would have pulled about $10 million away from the Wasatch Front. Cities objected, citing a different interpretation of how the revised formula worked.

"This had all the makings of a political mushroom cloud," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

Legislative leaders told the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties last spring to work it out and bring back a proposal.

Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, said this is the third time lawmakers have tried to get the complicated formula right and something goes wrong each time. He warned that the amount of money cities and counties stand to receive is based on assumptions that might not come to fruition.

"It's unlikely that everybody will get the dollars they think they will get," Sanpei said.

Shurtz and Diehl said cities and counties accept the risk and understand transportation modes could change in the coming years.

Also Wednesday, Legislators unanimously passed HB4001 to clarify the definitions of "solid waste" and "solid waste management facility."

Herbert earlier this year vetoed legislation that exempted some recyclable products from the definition of solid waste. He said he would bring it back if some changes were made.