SALT LAKE CITY — With near-unanimous support, the Utah Legislature has passed two bills to support Operation Rio Grande — one to fund nearly $5 million in law enforcement efforts and one to facilitate a two-year closure of Rio Grande Street.
The bills faced little opposition as they sailed through both the House and Senate during Wednesday’s special session, both driven by House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who has worked closely with city, county and state agencies to make the multiagency operation to root out lawlessness in Salt Lake City’s most troubled neighborhood a reality.
“We’ve worked hard,” Hughes said, attributing the Legislature’s unity to a “broad coalition” of “bipartisan support.”
“I could not be more proud of my colleagues for seeing these issues, particularly Operation Rio Grande, which could be very easy politically to see this as someone else’s issue,” Hughes said. “But as you heard … and as you can see by the votes, we do see this as a state issue.”
Paul Edwards, Gov. Gary Herbert’s deputy chief of staff, said the governor intends to sign both bills.
“We’re really grateful that people came together on these issues because it will make a big difference in our effort to move forward on Rio Grande,” Edwards said.
Though the first bill, HB1001, didn’t address Operation Rio Grande’s full $67 million price tag — which is expected to be addressed in the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions — it did shuffle $4.9 million in state funds to help pay for Operation Rio Grande enforcement efforts.
Pending Herbert’s signature, HB1001 will transfer leftover money from the Department of Corrections to the general fund, which would then go to the Department of Workforce Services to use for “enforcement, adjudication, corrections, and providing and addressing services for homeless individuals and families” through January 2018, according to the bill.
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said he would support the bill, but not without “reservations” about the state’s financial role in what he viewed as a city issue.
“It seems unprecedented and beyond the proper role of the state,” Nelson said, blaming Salt Lake City police for allowing the area to get out of control. “But I must support this effort because there’s no other solution. There’s no other answer. (The issue) has reached crisis proportions, and we must do something.”
But Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, balked at Nelson’s comments, saying Salt Lake police shouldn’t be “demonized for doing their job.”
“They are there battling day after day,” she said, “making very difficult decisions and trying to keep our streets safe. And I thank them for it.”
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said the issue at Rio Grande is a “statewide” issue because people come from across the state seeking services in that neighborhood.
“This is our gateway community into the state of Utah. What people see here is what people see as a reflection of the state,” Noel said. “For us to sit here and not do anything about it would be a reflection on us.”
The second bill, HB1002, makes a change in state law to allow Salt Lake City to close Rio Grande Street near the corner of 200 South and lease it to the state to create a “safe space” for people seeking services at the Road Home’s downtown shelter and Catholic Community Services facilities.
The safe space, Hughes said, will help restore “social order” to the area.
State officials have already begun installing chain-link fencing around the area.
Now that the Legislature has made the change in state law, the next step to close the street long term lies with the Salt Lake City Council, which must now approve an ordinance to expand Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s temporary closure of the street from 90 days to about 2 years — until the downtown shelter shutters in July 2019.
Hughes said the new “courtyard” will be shaded with a large tent structure, require an ID card to enter and include portable toilets, hand-washing stations, additional security cameras and bike lockers. His “favorite” part, he said, is that it will be patrolled by drug-sniffing beagles.
Additionally, Hughes says he hopes the space will help Salt Lake City better enforce its camping and public nuisance ordinances by acting as an area they can refer people to go to without fear.
“We believe some of the encampments you see happening are people trying to avoid this area, out of worry of … having your things stolen, being a victim of violence, falling back into a drug culture, those are things that this directly combats,” Hughes said.
But the road closure law was not unanimously supported.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was the only House lawmaker that voted against the bill, worried that the fenced-off area might scare some people needing homeless services away.
“In many eyes, when they see a fence, it reminds them of a prison,” Romero said. “When they have to get a card to get into services, it scares them.”
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, also voted against the bill in the Senate, saying she would have supported it if it put a firm time limit on when the street may open.
Though Hughes and city officials have said they plan to reopen the street when the downtown shelter shutters in July 2019, HB1002 allows an “indefinite” closure. However, the terms of the road closure’s duration are expected to be addressed in the lease agreement between the state and city.
Watch Senate and House leaders answer questions following the session below: