Summit County preps for the 45-day state legislative session, ready to play defense
The Utah State Legislature’s 45-day general session is scheduled to begin on Jan. 27 and conclude on March 12.
The 45-day sprint of the 2020 Utah Legislature’s general session is set to begin in less than two weeks, and Summit County officials say they’ll be paying close attention so they can play defense whenever necessary. But unlike last year, they aren’t pushing any specific bills.
Deputy County Manager Janna Young is in her third year coordinating the county’s legislative strategy. Soon after she began, she convened an internal working group of high-ranking department heads and elected officials that meets weekly while the Legislature is in session to determine who’s going to follow which bills and compare notes about what the county should be paying attention to.
The Legislature deals with hundreds of bills during its general session, making it imperative for the county to split up the workload and delegate tasks according to priority and expertise.
The county leans heavily on the Utah Association of Counties during the general session to keep up-to-date on what’s happening and to lobby on its behalf, officials said. UAC is a nonpartisan organization that holds regular meetings for county officials from across the state and lobbies for Utah’s 29 counties.
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Summit County is coming off of an unusually productive 2019 general session in which two initiatives it backed became law, one that created a community renewable energy program and another that dealt with wastewater.
This year, the county isn’t pushing any specific legislation, which officials said is the case more often than not.
But Young said the county does have policy goals it will advocate for, including staving off any effort to redistribute the transient room tax statewide, gaining access to the resort communities tax, increasing funding for indigent defense and beefing up staffing at the Utah State Tax Commission to increase its ability to effectively collect taxes, especially on services like bookings from national travel sites.
She added that the county will also be paying close attention to potential changes to the tax reform legislation passed during a special session in December, which will likely draw the eye of many Utahns.
The session is scheduled to run this year from Jan. 27 to March 12. It’s a dynamic time when changes can happen suddenly and the county has to be vigilant to make sure its interests are represented.
For example, County Councilor Kim Carson said reacting quickly to a topic like sales tax redistribution is critical because it’s the kind of thing that usually goes in the direction of harming the county, not helping it.
The session is so busy, Young said, that governments often end up working with the legislators who represent them geographically, rather than those that might align with their interests ideologically.
All five of the Summit County councilors are Democrats, while four of the area’s five legislators are Republicans.
Summit County has had to contend with its reputation as affluent and liberal when pursuing legislative ends, officials said, underscoring the importance of building coalitions.
The impact of the county’s reputation has lessened in recent years, Young and County Manager Tom Fisher said, largely as a result of trying to increase communication with legislators.
“We work on our reputation a lot,” Fisher said. “It’s not aggressive, it’s just from the standpoint of building relationships.”
Carson said others perceiving Summit County as wealthy and liberal can make it harder to pursue the county’s interests in the GOP-dominated Statehouse. She stressed the importance of communicating with legislators about the issues and what a bill would accomplish.
Carson said she plans to travel to the Statehouse every Thursday during the seven-week session, which is the day that UAC has its weekly meeting to gauge the various counties’ positions on bills.
The county contingent also typically includes Young, County Councilor Glenn Wright and Deputy County Attorney Jami Brackin. Brackin is seen as a statewide expert on land-use issues and is involved in many groups on Capitol Hill, Young said, and Carson added that Brackin’s experience is particularly helpful in anticipating potential problems before they arise.
Summit County also employs a lobbyist, Des Barker, who works on the county’s behalf and joins in the strategy meetings. The county pays Barker $45,000 annually; the county’s UAC dues are $77,000.
Carson said land use is a common subject of legislation. As an example of the kinds of bills the county would have to monitor, she recalled a push in previous years to mandate developments be approved by planning departments within two weeks of an application’s submittal. While that may sound innocuous, Carson said developments that shouldn’t be approved are the ones that often take the longest.
“We actually are very good about getting them turned around in that time unless there’s an issue with the plan,” she said. “We can’t determine how long it’s going to take (the applicant) to provide information that’s needed or to correct a deficiency in the application.”
The county advocated against that measure, which was defeated.
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