SALT LAKE CITY — Should the U.S. government sell off Utah to help deal with the federal deficit? What about the federal lands here? A Florida congressman's quote is drawing fire in the blogosphere, but his bigger-picture message is gaining traction even with Utah leaders.
Rep. Dennis A. Ross, R-Florida, is simply trying to find answers to the national debt, and the question of whether to raise the debt ceiling. He and other tea party Republicans are leery of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's changing forecasts of when the U.S. will max out its credit line and are offering alternatives.
"I'm not an economist, but I have maintained a household," Ross told Reuters. "The federal government owns 70 percent of Utah, for example. There are federal buildings. If you need cash, let's start liquidating."
That was translated on some blogs to mean House members were suggesting "selling most of Utah." In a statement issued Wednesday, though, Ross said he was mischaracterized by "left wing bloggers."
"Selling excess federal lands, as Rep. Chaffetz has proposed, is something I fully support, as well as excess federal buildings," Ross wrote in the statement.
Indeed, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has sponsored the Federal Building and Property Disposal Act. The legislation requires the federal government to sell roughly $19 billion in excess buildings and structures.
Chaffetz says he sees value in selling excess federal land, pointing to numbers from the Clinton administration that show 1 percent of the land served no public use.
"We need to $1 billion at a time start figuring out how we're going to put a dent in that debt," Chaffetz said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also expressed interest in the idea in his monthly news conference Wednesday.
"There's a lot of land that could in fact be privatized and help reduce the deficit, so I think it's got some merit to it," Herbert said.
Herbert said only 21 percent of the land in Utah is private, after subtracting federal, state and other ownership. He was skeptical Utah's national parks and pristine areas would be sold, or that the federal government would act in this fashion altogether.
"It's an idea that's not new — that's been talked about for the last generation," Herbert said. "If we want to reduce the deficit and balance the budget on the federal level, why don't we reduce some of the federal assets."
Ross also suggested in his statement that states like Utah could benefit by developing "their energy resources, particularly shale oil, for the betterment of their citizens, much like Alaska does."
The concept of selling federal lands to reduce the national debt is being met with a healthy dose of skepticism in other corners.
At the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, grass-roots outreach director Deeda Seed raised several questions.
"Essentially it's a preposterous idea because the resources to be gained from the sale of public lands would barely make a dent in the federal debt," Seed said. "At the same time, we would be losing a national treasure — one that belongs to all of us."
Seed asked if the land is really of no public use, why sell it. She acknowledged some lands may have no use, but said she was concerned about setting a "bad precedent."
At the University of Utah, political science professor Tim Chambless raised concerns about precedent.
"To sell off your assets is something you want to think long and hard about," Chambless said. "Interest is one thing. To sell off your principal is another."
Chambless said changing the tax code would be another alternative.
"We have individuals who are simply not paying their fair share of taxes," Chambless said. "We could be looking at a savings of many billions of dollars if we reform the tax code and make people pay what they honestly owe in a system that is fair."
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