The Grand County Commission on Feb. 2 voted to take official positions on eight bills that had been introduced by that time in the Utah State Legislature. The commission voted to take official positions against seven of the bills and support the eighth, which concerned reform of the Transient Room Tax that funds the county’s budget for “promoting and establishing” tourism, recreation and related activities.
The TRT reform bill could be the single most influential for the area if it passes, so let’s start there.
One last (?) tweak on TRT reform
Grand County officials and the Utah Tourism Industry Association earlier this month reached an agreement on changes to a major tax that drives (or, some argue, overdrives) local visitation, and after one additional tweak over the weekend, the bill appears close to its final form.
The bill, House Bill 247, is sponsored by one of Moab’s representatives, Carl Albrecht, a Republican from Richfield. He authored the bill with input from county officials and the county’s contract lobbyist, Casey Hill, who also works for the City of Moab and amended it with input from tourism industry representatives after its introduction.
Industry lobbyists appealed to Albrecht for an amendment that would limit the bill’s effect, changing the ability (if it passes) of gateway counties like Grand to spend on economic diversification efforts.
The bill originally expanded the list of restricted uses on which counties like Grand can spend revenue from the Transient Room Tax, which is charged for overnight stays in Moab. It added economic diversification to that list, which currently only includes “promotion and establishment” of tourism, recreation and related areas.
The original bill theoretically, if passed, would have allowed Grand to redirect its entire tourism marketing budget to economic diversification efforts, so tourism groups convinced Albrecht to compromise.
The substitute, adopted Feb. 5, limits the amount of the tax that counties can spend on economic diversification. The idea: Force counties to spend at least some of the restricted dollars on promoting and establishing tourism. Grand County Commission Administrator Chris Baird said after the legislature adopted the amendment that the county and tourism groups agreed to stop there with substantive changes to the bill.
“We made an agreement with Utah Tourism Industry Association that this was good enough for Grand,” Baird said of the compromise. “We don’t push for more, and they won’t oppose it.”
After one more change introduced Saturday, Feb. 13, county officials said they were still happy with the bill and still backing its passage. The newest bill sets further restrictions on how Grand and other counties that collect Transient Room Taxes from hotels and campgrounds can spend those tax revenues.
In addition to limiting spending on economic diversification, the newest change would also set a cap on how much Grand and other counties may spend on recreation — a spending area that does not necessarily include tourism.
But, according to Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan, who worked alongside Baird and others on the bill, the newest change is not really a restriction for the county.
“We don’t see the second substitute as a limit since we are still gain more spending flexibility with HB247 for economic diversification and impact mitigation,” Sloan said. “We see it as a commitment to our visitor economy to continue to invest a certain level of spending on promotion.”
Industry representatives argue that the Transient Room Tax ought to go back to supporting tourism since visitation creates so much tax revenue for Moab and similar areas. But Grand County officials say that visitation has grown to such an extent in Moab in recent years that feeding money back into marketing drives growth that Moab and Grand County are struggling to manage.
As such, the county in recent years has massaged its spending on promoting and establishing tourism to meet the letter of the law while reducing impacts. For example, the county recently passed an ordinance that sets restrictions on all marketing materials coming out of the Moab Area Travel Council, which manages the restricted Transient Room Tax revenues.
The local ordinance has expanded an existing focus within the Travel Council on promoting sustainable tourism. The county no longer advertises with general messages about visiting Moab and photos of Delicate Arch; each advertisement the county funds focuses on respecting the land and the area, with messages about staying on trail, recreating with respect, and more.
While the county has worked to mitigate the impacts of its promotional spending, it is now seeking opportunities to spend less on promotion and more on other needs driven or exacerbated by visitation. That is the goal county officials hope to achieve with HB 247.
The seven bills the county opposed
Mandating allowances for accessory dwelling units (HB 82)
This is a bill that brings together affordable housing advocates and private property rights advocates. Broadly, it would allow owners of single-family housing units to build accessory dwelling units.
The opposition is from localities, which are granted (and, I would argue, many times misuse) controls over local zoning and land use. This agency over land use and what people can and cannot build both serves to maintain neighborhood character and suppress changes and developments that would otherwise help localities, such as construction of apartment complexes that bring down rents by offering more housing units.
So, the chief opponents to this bill are the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties. The association of counties asked member organizations, including Grand County, to lobby against the bill because, as Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan put it earlier this month, it “chips away at local control.”
The bill also chips away at the barriers to constructing one particular form of affordable housing. I think it’s a good tradeoff, but I could be convinced otherwise.
The latest action on the bill was to circle it, which means that it is on hold until further notice. That happened on Feb. 12 on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives. The sponsor gave no explanation for the reason he wanted the bill circled or if he intended to revisit it before the end of the session.
A way around local building inspection requirements (HB 98)
This bill appears to be dying or dead. It moved to the House Political Subdivisions Committee on Feb. 1 and has not gotten its committee hearing, which also means it has not received a vote. Also, it has no Senate sponsor.
The bill describes itself pretty well, I think. It “allows a building permit applicant to opt out of certain local building inspection and plan review requirements.” Also, it “exempts a construction project involving repairs to a building damaged by a natural disaster from certain State Construction Code and building permit requirements” and prevents municipalities and counties from “regulating certain building design elements.”
These are all local control issues designed to set and enforce building standards. I suppose the theory is that a building that falls down is bad for business, so businesses won’t build buildings that fall down. This just seems to be one of those areas that even conservatives and small-government advocates in Utah aren’t getting behind, which might explain the lack of a vote on the issue.
Removing the need for vehicle registration stickers (HB 195)
This bill is a bit hard for me to understand, but it seems that it would basically eliminate the need for registration decals on certain vehicles, including off-highway vehicles. The decal is, of course, the only mechanism local authorities have for enforcing Utah law that allows only registered OHVs on state, county and municipal roads.
On the other side, the bill also allows for automatic vehicle registration.
The bill is currently held in the House Transportation Committee, meaning that it is not going anywhere until the sponsor brings back proposed changes that convince the committee to send the bill on with a recommendation to the House. That vote took place Feb. 4, so although the bill got a hearing and a vote, it has seen no movement for over a week — not even a substitute or amendment publication, which the sponsor can bring on his own.
An less extreme version of the ADU bill (HB 273)
This bill has seen no action since Feb. 2, so it appears doomed to die. As I understand it, the bill would require counties and municipalities to allow residents to establish internal ADUs. That is — anyone with a two- or three-story house could just convert one story into an additional dwelling space.
I don’t really understand why that would be controversial, but the county insists this would also chip away at local control, albeit less so than the other ADU bill. Sloan said something about how internal ADUs should require more parking. I feel like maybe Moab doesn’t need as much parking space as it has.
Taking some PILT from counties (SB 44)
This bill appears to be dead. It went to the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee on Jan. 19, and on Feb. 1, it became listed as “not considered.” So I think it’s dead.
This bill would have rerouted payments in lieu of taxes, which is a payment that the federal government pays to states. The payment is in lieu of property taxes on the federal land; that is, states don’t charge the federal government a property tax on federal land (like Bureau of Land Management land or land managed by the National Park System) I guess because the law doesn’t allow that.
As a compromise, the federal government makes payments to states to offset (but not replace) the opportunity cost of property tax on that land. Part of those payments then go to counties.
I think this bill would basically reduce the amount that goes to counties, so for places like Grand, our already small PILT funds would be further reduced. The state would keep that money in a newly created fund and do… I’m not sure what with it.
But the bill is dead, so I’m not digging much deeper than that.
Allowing analog billboards to go digital (SB 61)
This bill is not dead, and the county argued that, in its original form, it would allow billboard owners to get around local ordinances designed to address light pollution. The bill has since seen a substitution that appears to tighten up restrictions on billboard brightness, but I have not had an opportunity to hear from Grand County officials what they think of it in its current form.
The bill “allows the upgrade of certain existing signs to electronic or mechanical changeable message signs in certain circumstances, allows a municipality for county to prohibit the upgrade to electronic or mechanical changeable message signs along certain types of highways, allows a municipality or county to impose a curfew or other restrictions on the operation of certain signs, amends provisions related to brightness of electronic changeable message signs,” and does other things.
The latest action on the bill (besides a note about the bill having no fiscal impact to the budget) was to have it circled. That happened Feb. 12. The sponsor offered no details on why he wanted it circled or whether it would come back to the Senate floor.
A more extreme version of the other billboards bill (SB 144)
Moab’s own Sen. David Hinkins — who also sponsored the now-passed legislation on permit-less concealed carry of guns — proposed another bill that would lift many existing restrictions on billboards that counties and municipalities want to keep in place.
I won’t get further into details because the bill was assigned to the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee, and it is not being considered.