- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A proposal to invest more than $50 million in taxpayer funds for a coal shipping port in California is speeding through Utah’s Legislature, clearing an initial vote Wednesday that came less than 48 hours after the measure was unveiled.

Locals and environmental groups oppose the California terminal, but lawmakers say it would help rural Utah’s coal country.

The bill calls for using sales tax revenues to acquire a deep-water port near Oakland, California, and use it to export Utah coal overseas.

Adams said the move would help rural, energy-producing parts of the state, where unemployment rates are double those in Utah’s urban areas.

“We need to make sure that we can get our products from these rural areas, especially mineral-based products, out of the state,” bill sponsor Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said.

A Utah Senate committee advanced the measure Wednesday afternoon, but the measure must still win approval from Utah’s Senate and House of Representatives in the six working days left in the legislative session.

A California lawmaker who represents the Oakland area has already spoken out in opposition to the rushed Utah proposal.

California Sen. Loni Hancock, a Democrat, released a letter Tuesday that she sent to Adams outlining her legislation that would restrict exports of coal, particularly through an Oakland facility. “I would think that Utah residents would also question whether their hard-earned tax dollars should be going to build a railroad and port terminal in another state instead of promoting sustainable economic development in Utah,” the letter said.

During a committee hearing in Utah on Wednesday, a Democratic senator asked Adams about Hancock’s legislation.

“All we can do is control is what we do. And we think this is an opportunity and we’re going to pursue it,” Adams said.

Several environmental groups spoke against the measure, saying it’s a misuse of public money and an attempt to prop up the struggling coal industry.

Tim Wagner, the executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said if it was such a smart investment, private companies would be lining up to pour money into the project. “It appears to us to be an attempt to sneak through a controversial scheme at the very last minute, Wagner said.

Jae Potter, a county commissioner from Carbon County in Utah’s coal country, disputed the arguments from critics, telling lawmakers that the proposal is important to the economic future of about 20,000 people in his county.

“It’s an opportunity for us to shore up our jobs,” Potter said. “It is not an environmental issue.”

Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday that access to the port would benefit the state and is a worthwhile investment.

The Utah Permanent Community Impact Board committed last year to help four rural counties pay for the seaport under development at the Oakland Army Base.

The money in would come from Community Impact fees, which are generated from mineral and energy royalties. They are meant to mitigate the impacts of federal mining on local communities and usually go toward public improvement projects.

Two environmental groups had filed complaints with the state attorney general challenging the legality of using the impact-board funds on what is essentially a private enterprise.

Adams’ proposal would work around that issue by pulling about $50 million out of tax revenues currently earmarked for state transportation projects, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The Community Impact Board would then let the state use the impact fees to replace that money.

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Associated Press writer Hallie Golden contributed to this report. Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com

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