Dear Friends and Neighbors,

July is a month of celebrations from BBQs to lighting sparklers to watching a parade to fireworks. These festivities represent the birth of America’s independence and our pioneer ancestors settling this great place we call home. While fireworks are an entertaining way to commemorate these occasions, it raises serious concerns. 

The legislature passed a law in 2018 adjusting firework restrictions to address increasing fire concerns in Utah’s hot, dry climate. Fireworks may be discharged two days before and one day after both Independence Day and Pioneer Day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. On July 4 and 24th, fireworks may be discharged until midnight. Additionally, the fine for someone who causes a fire with fireworks increased from $750 to $1,000 and provided cities further flexibility to regulate within their jurisdictions.  

I hope we all took a moment to appreciate the freedom that has granted us one of the most generous, prosperous, productive and innovative nations and remember those who defend our freedom.  

• Privacy — During the 2019 session, Utah made national headlines as the first state to pass legislation protecting electronic information stored by third parties that individuals use such as Facebook and Google. Under the data privacy law, HB 57, Electronic Information or Data Privacy, law enforcement is required to obtain a warrant to get digital records. This includes information such as emails, text messages, shared files and other forms of electronic communication. 

It was recently reported federal agencies sometimes use facial recognition on driver license information to help with a criminal investigation. The Utah Department of Public Safety reviewed the information used at the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles and determined no misuse of information occurred. Additionally, according to the Utah Statewide Information and Analysis Center, federal agencies do not have access to data and any request for data must link to a criminal investigation. 

It is a priority to safeguard Utahns’ privacy while making sure law enforcement agencies have the necessary tools to investigate criminal activity. The usage of personal data and privacy is a topic the Government Operations Interim Committee has been assigned to follow and hold committee meetings if necessary.

• What is an inland port? — The development of an inland port has been in the news quite a lot in the past few months. Many constituents have expressed an interest in learning about its history and potential benefits and impacts.

An inland trade port in Utah has been discussed and studied for decades. Salt Lake City has long been considered the “Crossroads of the West” ideally situated between many western population centers. An inland port, which is a more common practice east of the Mississippi, would act as a central distribution point for international trade, including customs processing and inspections that generally take place at seaports.  

In the 2018 legislative session, a law passed, bringing the port discussions closer to reality. The bill created the Utah Inland Port Authority Board. It also established a geographical boundary and authorized the port authority to begin the work of creating the port under the authority of an 11-member governing board. 

The planned inland port is considered one of the largest economic development opportunities in our state’s history. For many years, Utah has been a national leader in business growth and economic opportunity. Our unique combination of infrastructure, including interstate freeways, rail lines and an international airport make the Salt Lake Valley an ideal place to create a hub for international trade in the Intermountain West. This massive undertaking aims to increase Utah’s economic growth and bring more high-paying jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities to our state.

 Of course, any project of this size brings legitimate concerns about the environmental impact it is bound to make on a valley with existing clean-air issues. During the 2019 session, a bill passed making significant changes to the structure of the port spreading the burden and benefits of the port to be carried by many other communities throughout the state. It is being referred to as the hub and spoke model. The bill allows for other Utah communities to create regional “spokes” to the Salt Lake City “hub” to allow for more efficient movement of products from a variety of Utah communities to international customers. 

The upside to this change is the hub and spoke model dilutes some of the environmental impacts that would have been concentrated on the Wasatch Front in the original model. This framework allows for the use of the infrastructure existing in Salt Lake City while also greatly expanding the benefits to Utah communities in need of an economic boost. 

• Statewide Listening Tour — The Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force launched a listening tour this summer to receive suggestions, hear concerns and get public input at town hall meetings beginning in late June. Eight locations were selected throughout the state to make public comment opportunities widely available to all Utahns. 

We have been pleased by the number of people in attendance at the town hall meetings. We are grateful for the participation, feedback and insight. The unique concerns and perspectives of every city, county, business and individuals attending the town halls and comments made online will help develop a fair and sustainable policy. Helping ensure Utah’s future is bright. 

While no decisions have been made and all options are on the table, here are a few of the recurring themes we have heard. Many have expressed a desire for us to protect funding for education. Others encouraged a reevaluation of state spending. We heard from a variety of professions that provide services, like attorneys, funeral directors and real estate agents asking us not to tax their services. Several people suggested we restore the sales tax on food but encouraged a voucher or tax incentive be made available for low-income households. 

During each town hall, a straw poll is conducted following constituents’ public comments to see how many in the room agree with the suggestion. Most of the time, it is split 50/50, illustrating how challenging this issue is to address. I encourage you to continue to stay involved. 

• What do you think? — Thanks for following me along in my legislative journey. I hope to continually keep you informed about my work on the Hill – likewise, please keep in touch – I’d love to hear your insights and opinions. I can also be reached by email at rokerlund@le.utah.gov.

Ralph Okerlund

Utah State Senate, District 24

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