Ever get the idea that state government is run something like the Titanic or the Exxon Valdez, careening between icebergs and sandbars, guided by the self-righteous or the non compus mentis?
There are examples aplenty that would reinforce that notion, but none more poignant than that brought home this week by a federal appeals court in Denver that disrobed, at least partially, what our governor calls “The Legacy Highway”—the irony thick enough to eat with a slotted spoon.
Mike Leavitt should take note—or at least his mother should have taught him—not to speak with a mouth full of that stuff he’s been forced to eat. But speak he did, arguing that the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals meant practically nothing at all when it ruled that state and federal authorities approved the 14-mile highway through fragile Great Salt Lake wetlands in a manner that was “arbitrary and capricious.” Just more technicalities, the governor blubbered.
Will somebody wake the captain, we seem to have run aground. That leak is $17 million in penalties that tax coffers are spewing because insider politics were allowed to dictate the Legacy plan rather than federal environmental law. The governor and legislative leaders were so bent on their project that they pressured Army Corps of Engineers bureaucrats to sign off on it—hints of retaliation from powerful congressmen wafting in the lake breeze—while potentially less environmentally damaging routes went unexplored.
Enter the Sierra Club, Mayor Rocky Anderson and a coalition who filed suit to stop the highway. At first blush, the move didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as laying down in front of bulldozers. But that quickly changed as state Republican legislative leaders began throwing about threats to punish those who bring suit against state government and even to fiscally retaliate against Salt Lake City taxpayers and voters for electing a mayor who had the unmitigated gall to challenge the white, male Republican power structure.
There we were, the Great Ship Utah, foundering as the court halted the Legacy project, causing $50,000 to $100,000 in penalties per day to be paid to the contractor. It was all the fault of environmentalists and Rocky Anderson—no matter that federal Environmental Protection Agency brass had warned Leavitt and his cockswains that Utah would be liable financially should Legacy run afoul of federal legal standards.
It all fits nicely into the pattern set by the Hindenberg that self-righteous gasbags, in the end, deflate on some sharp object. Fortunately, the rule of law still holds, although it can take a 500-mile trip to Denver to find it. Hereabouts, expensive lessons are learned—or not learned—the hard way.