Frank Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb: Examining the swirling politics of the inland port

Local political pundits appreciate the inland port not just because of its huge economic development potential, but also for all the interesting controversies it is generating. The fun never seems to end. We wallow around in the hubbub.

In the July special session, lawmakers modified the inland port legislation to address environmental, municipal and governance concerns. On the eve of the vote, Salt Lake City Council members and legislators held hands in agreement. Mayor Jackie Biskupskidid not participate in the discussions and remains largely opposed to the results. Everyone knows there will be political fallout, but what is it?

Pignanelli: “There is no gambling like politics." — Benjamin Disraeli

Brilliant political strategy is art, to be admired and appreciated. But with any creative endeavor, pain is initially endured. The inland port was plagued early by problems (e.g. prohibiting owners of property within 5 miles from serving on the commission was unnecessary and counterproductive). Eventually, the artistry unfolded.

Speaker Greg Hughes stood with Salt Lake City Council members to publicly announce the results of their negotiations. He benefited from understanding their environmental and financial issues, bolstering his image of effectiveness. The City Council protected city interests in the Legislature by dealing with them. Even left-wing organizations praised this outcome.

Politicos are commenting that Mayor Biskupski suffered damage for her refusal to participate in this legislative effort. Alas, such observers do not understand Salt Lake City. The mayor made a shrewd and gutsy move, enhancing her reputation for challenging the "Establishment." Unlike other areas in Utah, this plays well to most voters in the capital city. Potential opponents will have difficulty attacking her tactics. Furthermore, the City Council has brokered short-term solutions, so the municipal government will not suffer.

See, statecraft can be beautiful.

Webb: The inland port will be an issue in Biskupski’s re-election campaign next year, but won’t be the deciding factor. More important will be who runs against her. However, her stark disagreement with her own City Council is emblematic of her insular nature and aloofness. Salt Lake City’s politics are definitely leftist. But its leaders must be able to work with the business community, the Legislature and the LDS Church. Whoever wins the mayorship next year will have to say, “I’m just as liberal as Mayor Biskupski, but I can at least work with others to get things done.”

The threats of lawsuits based on environmental concerns and constitutional grounds are permeating discussions and plans for the inland port. Will there be court action, and could progress stall on this development?

Pignanelli: State and city leaders are expecting legal action. So development will continue, with the appropriate contingencies.

Litigation is a subtle advantage for the political players. Mayor Biskupski can point to lawsuits as a vindication of her strategy to stay away. Lawmakers and the City Council can claim they developed a practical compromise, and therefore litigants are unreasonable and out of touch.

Webb: Lawsuits are likely inevitable, but they would be a waste of time and money. The Inland Port Authority board has an excellent chairman in Derek Miller, and some excellent leaders serving on the board. All sorts of issues, problems and barriers are going to arise, as they always do in a big project like this. But the board members can work through them. Miller is committed to an open, transparent process, and protecting the environment will be a top concern. This thing is barely getting started. Let’s get on with it, make it the most high-tech port facility in the world and deal with issues as they arise.

The inland port is designed to promote global trade, efficient transportation of goods, and a lot of manufacturing, with Utah benefiting as the crossroads of the West. But the trade wars prompted by President Donald Trump could damage international trade. Are there political ramifications from this?

Pignanelli: Utah's future is increasingly tied to open markets and our officials must act accordingly. Sen. Orrin Hatch is an outspoken fan of Trump, but is promoting an articulate defense of free trade in opposition to the president's policies. Hatch initiated legislative action to stop the trade war, and the rest of the delegation will follow. Hopefully, Trump negotiates a resolution. Otherwise, Utah leaders must actively push against these harmful actions.

Webb: The inland port will survive Trump. Trump loves to push up to the brink of disaster and then pull back. We’re already close to better trade deals with the European Union, Mexico and Canada. China, which has been taking advantage of us for decades, is the tough one. But since we sell China $130 billion in goods annually, and China sells us $500 billion, China has a lot more to lose than we do. Politicians in both parties have been saying for years that China is ripping us off and we need to get tough. Trump is getting tough.

In the end, despite the hysteria, Trump’s bluster will produce better trade agreements.