Summit County is ready to ‘play defense’ as the legislative general session begins
Rural investment a potential boon, land-use authority a potential loss
Summit County officials are eyeing the upcoming legislative session with some trepidation, as usual, wary of land-use bills and tax changes that could reduce the county’s authority or its revenues, but seeing opportunities for investment in the more rural East Side and infrastructure programs that might help Kimball Junction.
“It always seems like we have to play defense sometime during the legislative session,” said County Council Chair Glenn Wright during a briefing about the upcoming general session, which began Tuesday.
The county has good reason to be cautious.
Legislation passed at the end of last year’s general session paved the way for Hideout to attempt to annex hundreds of acres of Richardson Flat, though local officials did not know it until the town announced the annexation months later.
It was presented as a bill that had broad support that made minor changes to state code.
45 – length of the general session, in days
Jan. 19 – first day of the session
March 5 – last day of the session
1,000 – number of bills expected to be introduced
$21.7 billion – Gov. Spencer Cox proposed budget
March 25 – last day Gov. Cox can sign or veto bills
May 5 – normal effective date for legislation
Source: Summit County
County officials are eyeing annexation-related bills closely this session and have worked on a compromise piece of legislation to restore some county authority in the process.
County Manager Tom Fisher said the county would be working with its legislative contacts and lobbyist very closely this session.
“My personal view is that we’re expecting the worst and we’re going to try and identify it when it happens, and it’s likely to come at the eleventh-and-a-half hour, as it has in the past,” Fisher said in a recent interview. “So we’ve really got to be on our game towards the last week of the (session).”
Janna Young, deputy county manager, and Jami Brackin, a deputy county attorney, coordinate the county’s legislative team, which meets weekly to discuss bills.
The county also employs a lobbyist and works closely with a land-use task force and the Utah Association of Counties. Both groups help screen potential legislation and lobby lawmakers.
The 45-day general session is scheduled to last until early March. Officials expect about 1,000 bills to be introduced. Traditionally, that leads to a flurry of activity in the closing days as dozens of bills are voted on with relatively little discussion.
The Legislature is adapting to a new gubernatorial administration and facing a budget that it cut sharply last year, an ongoing pandemic and a massive vaccine distribution effort.
Lobbying legislators will be different this year, officials indicated, as the public will largely be barred from the Capitol, at least initially, and most interaction with legislators must be done virtually.
That will nix the impromptu meetings that can happen among stakeholders who descend on the Statehouse.
At a virtual meet-and-greet last week, county officials voiced their priorities, concerns and questions to the legislators who represent parts of the county.
In addition to land-use planning and annexation, they discussed transportation and taxation issues.
Brackin said the land-use task force had created a compromise bill to deal with cross-county annexations of the kind that Hideout is pursuing. That process required county approval until last year, and Brackin said the new bill partly restores that.
“It gives our voice back and that was a big deal for us,” Brackin said. “It had been taken away.”
Newly elected House District 54 Rep. Mike Kohler, R-Midway, indicated he would like to see counties regain their say in cross-county annexations and would support such legislation.
County officials also advocated for the ability to levy a resort tax that is currently only allowed in cities, and for the ability to use an existing tax for broader measures, including funding emergency medical services.
Legislators indicated that issue appeared to have statewide support.
County elected officials seemed wary that the Legislature would move to strip authority from city and county governments to manage land within their boundaries.
Councilor Roger Armstrong disputed the notion that it is difficult to develop land in Summit County. He said that the tourists who fly here — helping fuel the state’s economy — do so because they want to go to a place that’s “still a little bit wild.”
Armstrong made the case for local control, indicating that Hideout’s annexation is the kind of development sprawl that imperils the factors that entice people to come to Summit County.
It would not be unusual for the Legislature to reduce local authority.
During the pandemic, the Legislature limited the governor’s power and that of local health departments to enact health-related restrictions.
Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, indicated the Legislature would once again limit local health departments’ authority to ensure that elected officials would have oversight of proposed regulations.
The county is anticipating funding opportunities after the Legislature cut the state’s budget last year more than the pandemic-related turndown necessitated.
Officials said Gov. Spencer Cox’s emphasis on rural development might bode well for investment in East Side municipalities. In a memo accompanying the council briefing, county staffers said they anticipated state investment in infrastructure projects, which could aid potential improvements to Kimball Junction, as well as in regional transportation systems like the Snyderville Basin Transit District the county is establishing.
The Legislature’s website, le.utah.gov, has an array of tools to track the legislative session.
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