Friday, May 18, 2007

May Legislative Update -- Already Preparing for Next Session

Well it was a busy day on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, May 16th with several municipal related legislation/concepts up for discussion in multiple legislative interim committees. Lets first start with the infamous Political Subdivisions Committee. By its very nature, this committee spends most of its time discussing local government issues and this month was no different. With five items on the agenda, four had municipal implications.

First, the committee discussed the structure and mission of the Utah State Quality Growth Commission. After a quick review of the Commission’s mission, the discussion quickly turned to the role of the Commission in ensuring that local government land-use authorities receive appropriate training on critical concepts in land-use law prior to making decisions on specific land-use applications. John Bennett from the Quality Growth Commission did a great job of describing the need for training and plugged the efforts of the Utah League of Cities and Towns to come up with consistent training criteria and materials for local land-use authorities. Mr. Bennett also mentioned efforts that are being made to ensure that a myriad of training resources are made readily accessible through web-based training resources. While the interim committee didn’t hear directly from the ULCT on this issue, it is clear that the ULCT efforts to come up with training materials on land use matters is gaining significant momentum in several policy circles. Several members of the committee opined on the need for additional training and encouraged those involved to continue to pursue such objectives.

Moving to the next item – The same committee (Political Subdivisions) also heard comments regarding Local Referenda. Representative Scott Wyatt discussed the issue of referability of local land use decisions, and spent most of his time pointing out the inconsistency and ambiguity in state statute as it pertains to qualifying and processing local referenda. He brought up issues with different procedures for different forms of government, timeliness of applications, and broad questions regarding what is deemed referable under current state law.

While Rep. Wyatt did say he was not looking to “change the world” he is interested in getting together with interested parties on this technical land use matter. As many of you may know this has been a huge issue for local governments for some time. We have discussed several approached in years past, but legislative momentum has never been there on the issue. Well, it looks like this might be the year. We have already identified this as one of the topics to be discussed with the development community and other stakeholders during the interim period. Look for a lot more on this item. The Salt Lake Tribune also wrote on this issue, and that story can be found HERE.

A third item on the agenda deals with the appointment and removal of certain local government officials. Rep. Chris Herrod is interested in pursing legislation that would expand the advice and consent power of municipal legislative bodies to also include acts of personnel dismissal. While it has long been the law that the legislative body of a city or town has advice and consent on some hiring practices, this change would also expand that power to firing.

While his initial approach is broad sweeping, he is interested in sitting down with local government officials to see if it can be tailored to our liking. Some of the points of concern that we mentioned in committee included concerns regarding giving council advice on consent on the firing of department heads that report directly to the mayor in a “strong mayor” form of government. We also raised significant questions regarding the application of the law in the various forms of government, especially municipal forms of government where the Mayor sits as the chair of the council. At the end of the discussion Rep. Herrod committed to working with the ULCT and the Local Issues Taskforce of the legislature to come up with a solution everyone felt comfortable with. Some possibilities include limiting the advice and consent on firing to appointed voluntary boards and commissions that report to the council regularly and also limiting the provision to applicable forms of government – i.e. the council-mayor form and council-manager form of government.

Lastly, the committee heard from Rep. Neil Hansen regarding his desire to see municipal elections every time a city or town disposes of a piece of real property with a value greater than $1 Million dollars. The bill was opposed by the ULCT during the last legislative session for several reasons to include: limitation of municipal governance, costs of administering local elections for such nominal matters, and built in disincentives for local governments to dispose of excess real property, which in essence keeps that property off of the tax roles for all taxing entities. The bill died during the last session and the appetite for such legislation hasn’t changed much since that time. The committee was not too warm to the proposal, but we do expect Rep. Hansen to continue to pursue the issue.

Now quickly on to Revenue and Taxation items. This committee also spent some time on municipal issues during this month’s interim. The staff of the committee provided a great report on the financing of municipal government in Utah. They worked very closely with the Utah League of Cities and Towns when preparing the report and derived the data from the municipal finance database that is maintained by the ULCT for the US Census Bureau and the Utah State Auditor’s Office and ULCT use. The staff and committee also spent some time discussing the new ULCT project regarding municipal clustering and new approaches for analyzing municipal finance. It proved to be a nice opportunity to share some of our municipal government insights with the committee.

In addition, the committee also spent some time discussing the Streamlined Sales Tax Project, where Rep. Wayne Harper is attempting to get one (1) sales tax rate for the entire state of Utah. Rep. Harper has been working with the League of Cities for some time on the issue, but there are still many hurdles to cross before municipal governments will be comfortable with the project. Those hurdles include: figuring out a way to have a rate sufficient enough to include all local option taxes (Zoo Art and Parks, Transportation, Transit, Etc.). That would mean some large increases in the tax rate in many rural parts of the state that don’t have the same local option taxes as the more urbanized areas. In addition, the ULCT has still not endorsed the idea that a requisite reduction in the property tax must accompany any forced increase in the sales tax. Those items are still “out there” to be addressed, but we have committed to working with Rep. Harper to see if something can come of the idea. Many members of the committee expressed interest in the idea and encourage the stakeholders to work with Rep. Harper on solutions that would allow for a uniform statewide sales tax.

Well, that about covers it for interims for local government. As you can see, there is a lot going on already. If you have any questions or comments, we would love to hear from you.

Until next time … ENJOY.