Failure of Utah Initiative is Yet Another Setback for Preservation Proponents

A statewide commitment to preserve open space has now been rebuffed in just about every way possible.

SALT LAKE CITY − A statewide commitment to preserve open space has now been rebuffed in just about every way possible.

Two different bills designed to address the issue have died in the Legislature during the past half-dozen years; lawmakers have failed to allocate dollars to the LeRay McAllister Open Space Fund at levels originally envisioned; and finally, last week, Utah voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have created a $150 million bond for the purchase of watersheds, wildlife habitats and farm and ranch land.

The Initiative 1 campaign staged by Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air and Quality Growth was extraordinarily well-financed -- collecting more than $1 million in campaign contributions -- and had the support of a wide range of political, environmental, hunting and fishing, and agriculture interests. Yet, state residents made it clear, by a 10-point margin, that they had no interest in taking on a sales tax increase (about $14 a year per family) to finance the bond.

So now what? Do open space proponents take the issue to the local level, where so many initiative opponents believe it belongs? Do they try to jump-start, perhaps with the help of Gov.-elect Jon Huntsman Jr., efforts to revive the McAllister Fund? Do they give up and go home?

"It's probably too early to tell," says Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake City, the Legislature's most visible open space proponent. "But I think that there are a couple of things that came out of this process that people need to recognize.

"First, though the results were disappointing, there is a tremendous amount of support for open space. Over 45 percent of the people in the state supported the initiative. Even our opponents acknowledged that.

"The initiative opponents also made it pretty clear that they weren't attacking open space per se, but rather, the funding mechanism. So I hope that will send a message to those of us in elected office."

The first, most obvious move may come in January, when new efforts could be made to replenish the McAllister Fund, which was given an initial seeding in 1999 of nearly $4 million and originally expected to grow beyond that, in part from monies collected from energy efficiency savings in state buildings. But it never happened.

Today, after a series of budget cuts, only about $800,000 sits in the McAllister Fund, which was created to help make open space purchases by providing matches for various private and federal grants. That figure is up from the past couple of years, but still well below the level originally planned.

"If we'd followed through, there'd be several million dollars in there today," says Becker. "It's that lack of legislative follow-through that has created so much frustration among those who view watershed and wildlife habitat protection and farmland protection as being important."

In that sense, open space supporters hope to get a boost from Huntsman, who supported Initiative 1 and is a former chairman of Envision Utah, the state's growth-planning partner. But the governor-elect is noncommittal for now.

"Jon believes strongly in the need for open space and quality growth planning," says Huntsman spokesman Jason Chaffetz. "But really, what will be key is working with the Legislature and its new leadership.

"We're going to work closely with them to figure out how to get funding for this, but it has to be balanced with the state's other needs.

"It goes back to what we've been saying all along -- we have to improve the economy in this state. Once we do that, we should have the revenue to address important needs like open space."

Initiative 1 backers are mostly on the mark when citing the size of the bond and accompanying sales tax increase as the primary reason for the defeat of the ballot measure.

"Nobody's against open space," says Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who is also president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, Initiative 1's fiercest foe. "What this proved was that voters saw through the nice-sounding words and slick advertising."

Yet, there remains plenty of sentiment among the Legislature's current Republican leadership that the state already has enough open space, a reference to the fact that more than 72 percent of Utah is owned by the federal government and the state. There is also some resentment among GOP lawmakers that the state hasn't done enough when it comes to quality of life issues.

"There is a presumption out there that we didn't already have an awareness about things like clean air, clean water and open space," says Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, co-chairman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee. "I personally don't think that's accurate. I would cite the $500 million in tax incentives and appropriations dedicated to those sources as proof. I'm not saying we've done enough, but this is something that needs to be put in context with the other issues facing the state."

Bramble and many other Initiative 1 foes believe, philosophically, that open space acquisitions are most effectively managed at the local level. Stephenson and others repeatedly cited recent open space purchases made by Park City to create green space around developed areas.

The problem with that, initiative supporters always responded, was that most Utah communities don't have the deep financial pockets of the upscale Summit County burg.

Becker also points out another problem: The Legislature, in the late 1990s, repeatedly rebuffed proposed legislation by former Rep. Evan Olsen that would give local governments the ability to levy a sales-tax increase to fund such open space purchases.

"A lot of the people now calling open space a local issue were the same ones who opposed Rep. Olsen's bill," notes Becker. "So I'm interested in seeing how they respond now. If it is a local issue, then they should give local governments the ability to place self-taxing proposals on the ballot. If they're going to be consistent, they should give municipalities that discretion and authority."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News