SALT LAKE CITY — The traditional state vs. local control power struggle manifested again in several ways on Capitol Hill this year, from the ongoing fight over the Utah Inland Port Authority to gravel pits and plastic bags.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's fight over the port authority is moving to the courts and is its own animal, spilling over from last year's session. But as for other issues, when the 2019 session started, several bills quickly caught the nervous eye of local officials, wary of state encroachment into local powers.
Yet as Day 45 came to a close, there was a breath of relief, as those bills either wilted or passed the Utah Legislature drastically different than they began.
Whether it was in the dust-up over state interference of local regulation of gravel pits, the yearly attempt to block plastic bag bans, or a more heavy-handed approach to force cities to zone for affordable housing, the 2019 session had many wins for local control, at least as the Utah League of Cities and Towns sees it.
"As we look back on the 45 days of the session, the league is pleased and thrilled about how responsive and respectful the Legislature was to local authority," said Cameron Diehl, executive director for the league, an organization that lobbies for city rights on Capitol Hill.
"There were many bills that started with a premise of pre-empting local government, and those bills either died or moved in a substantial way to respect the role of local government," Diehl said.
One bill, HB288, began as one that would drastically limit cities' abilities to regulate gravel pits, upsetting environmentalists and residents who live near gravel operations such as Geneva Rock's Point of the Mountain pit in Draper.
The dispute centered around private property rights — particularly for a business that has long existed before neighborhoods began to encroach — and cities' authority to limit gravel pit expansion. Ultimately, after the bill at one point was shot down in the House, what passed the Utah Legislature the last night of the session was a compromise between both sides.
There was also SB34, a bill aimed at increasing affordable housing, that focused on incentivizing cities by leveraging state transportation dollars — though some lawmakers questioned whether that was a tough enough approach to force cities to do their part. Ultimately, the bill that passed found a happy medium, Diehl said, because it encouraged, rather than forced, cities to zone for moderate-income housing.
Then there was a new effort to block cities like Park City from banning plastic bags — but the bill stalled in the House after it was literally shouted down on the House floor by two voice votes — a moment that left lawmakers, even sponsor Rep. Mike McKell, laughing.
But in all seriousness, Diehl said the failure of the plastic bag ban bill shows "the Legislature publicly acknowledged, several times, that this is a local authority issue, and they respected local authority."
"That's big," Diehl said.
Another win, in Diehl's eyes, was the rocky but ultimately successful passage of the bill sponsored by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, that aimed to relax the state's iron grip on city anti-idling ordinances. The version that passed reduces the state-mandated requirement that cities allow illegal idlers three warnings before issuing a citation down to one warning.
It wasn't all that Arent wanted to help cities enforce their own laws, but it was enough to be considered a win, Diehl said.
"Look at where the law was two months ago. Frankly, state law discouraged cities from acting on their own ordinances," Diehl said, calling Arent's bill a step in the right direction.
It's a stark contrast from last year's session when the Utah Legislature expanded its power on multiple fronts — including the creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority that dismayed Salt Lake City officials.
This year, even the fight over the port in some ways scaled down significantly as the Salt Lake City Council negotiated on and supported this year's bill, along with the Utah League of Cities and Towns — although the mayor is only just starting to ramp up her fight. The courts will decide in the coming months what will happen next.
To House Speaker Brad Wilson, the 2019 session was one of collaboration, not combat, with city leaders.
"I'm meeting constantly with mayors and council members and commissioners, and so, in general, it feels like we're working very well together," the Kaysville Republican said, acknowledging that while there remains "tension" with Biskupski, he believes lawmakers worked well with the City Council this year. "So I don't feel like that's been a big theme of the session."
There are examples here and there where lawmakers debate whether the state should step in to tackle issues on local fronts, Wilson acknowledged, but that happens every year.
"And it goes both ways, too," he said. "There are times we stand back."
House Minority Leader Bring King, D-Salt Lake City, said there is certainly a "constant push me, pull you struggle" on Capitol Hill every year related to local control issues.
That was demonstrated in multiple ways this year, including the legal fight over the port authority, he said, noting Democrats were in a tough spot this year, split between the City Council and the mayor.
"You have wins, you have losses, and it all depends on the perspective," King said.