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Utah lawmakers move to ground drones, become Facebook friends

Published July 13, 2016 11:32 pm

Utah Legislature • Special session clears bills to prop up Fairpark, disable aircraft flying over wildfires and help land a Facebook operation.
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Utah lawmakers are cracking down on drones flying over wildfires by allowing fire bosses to "neutralize" the meddlesome aircraft — either by forcing them to crash or shooting them down.

In a Wednesday special session, legislators also adopted a tax break meant to lure data centers to the state — bait that clearly appears intended to hook a massive Facebook operation that is considering locating in Utah — and funneled $10 million to build a new stadium at the state Fairpark.

Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said the drone bill was motivated by aircraft that hampered crews fighting the Saddle Fire in southwestern Utah, causing it to spread and char more acres, threaten homes and businesses and costing as much as $8 million in additional expenses.



"What we're trying to do is get through to the public that we're serious about this and we're not monkeying around with it," Ipson said. "The important thing in this legislation is getting them out of the sky and fighting the fire."

The measure allows the fire officials to "neutralize" the drones — either by jamming the signal electronically, causing them to crash, or by shooting them down.

"The redneck in me [says] to shoot the damn thing," said Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, "but there are much more humane ways to do that."

The bill enhances the penalties for flying drones over blazes in ways that hinder firefighting efforts.

It is a class B misdemeanor to fly a drone over a fire; a class A misdemeanor if the drone keeps an air tanker from dropping fire retardant; a third-degree felony if the drone crashes into a firefighting aircraft; and a second-degree felony if the collision causes the firefighting aircraft to crash.

The second-degree felony is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine — double the current fine. Ipson's bill also allows a judge to order the drone pilot to pay restitution for damages caused by the aircraft's flight.

"This is certainly an issue this year, and we believe it's only going to get worse," warned Brian Cottam, director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. "It's not just a matter of cost, but it does put firefighter lives at risk, as well as the public."

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, was one of two House members who opposed the measure. He said enhancing penalties of a law that has been in effect only a couple of months "is not going to achieve the intended effect" and may be an overreaction.

Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to sign the bill.

"This summer, wildfires in the state have become significantly worse due to drones interrupting air operations," Herbert said in a statement as he called lawmakers into Wednesday's special session. "It is dangerous and completely unacceptable, and this legislation takes steps to ensure that our emergency management personal are safe and empowered to do their jobs effectively."

The Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill to give a sales tax exemption to companies that build sprawling data centers — an apparent bid to entice Facebook, which is considering putting such a center in either Utah or New Mexico.

The Facebook data center would mean $250 million to $500 million in construction costs in its initial phase and generate 80 to 100 jobs.

Val Hale, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, would not comment on whether his office has been in talks with Facebook about locating the center in Utah. But the bill's passage, he said, could push Utah over the top when it comes to competing with other states for such facilities.

"A lot of the outcome may be determined by what happens today. I don't think any decisions have been made yet. I'm sure that that company and others are probably watching this to see what happens," Hale said. "I think this bill will be a very strong statement for those types of companies that Utah is very interested in attracting."

The measure won't cost the state anything, said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the bill sponsor, because it's tax money that is not being collected now "and we won't get any if we don't pass this."

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, voted against the bill, questioning why the state was giving a multimillion-dollar "corporate bonanza" to the social-media behemoth. He said if Facebook is going to take corporate welfare, the company's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, should have to take a drug test, like other welfare recipients.

Evelyn Everton, state director for Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group, opposed giving special perks to try to lure one project.

"In a truly free-market system," she said, "the government doesn't reward a few select companies."

Rocky Mountain Power has filed documents with the Public Service Commission seeking approval of a potential contract with Facebook to provide substantial amounts of renewable energy — the only energy Facebook will use to power the facility. A hearing on that request is scheduled for next month.

The Legislature also approved a bill by Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, to commit $10 million in state funds toward building a $17 million, 10,000-seat stadium at the Fairpark.

It would host the Days of '47 Rodeo and other events. Hollins said it would help make the west Salt Lake City venue more self-sustaining and give the annual fair a more-secure future.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has offered $3 million toward that project. Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County would kick in about $3 million, and other money would come from private donors.

"We're getting a $17 million stadium," Hollins said, "and we're putting in $10 million."

Some lawmakers questioned why the bill allows avoiding standard-procurement procedures. Hollins said backers hope to build the stadium quickly, before next July. That's because Vivint Smart Home Arena cannot host the Days of '47 Rodeo next year because of scheduled renovations. The project will have competitive bidding, Hollins said, but not the standard procedure.

Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, said the Legislature should have made such an investment in the Fairpark years ago. "Fairs do not make money, but we can and should pay whatever it takes to maintain that tradition," he said. "I hope this is the beginning of several major projects at the Fairpark."

The House killed one bill Wednesday on a 25-40 vote. The measure sought to allow grandparents to go to court to seek visitation of a grandchild adopted by another family member.

Herbert vetoed an earlier version, but he said he would approve it if changes were made.

Several House members said an adoptive parent, not a court, should decide what is in the best interest of the child. They argued the bill could allow parents whose rights have been terminated back into the life of the child because such parents often live with grandparents.

In the end, the Legislature passed eight measures, including four that dealt with technical changes to state code.

 

 

 

 

 

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