Utah House prepares to battle feds over control of public lands
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers sound a lot like that rebellious rock group The Who: We're not gonna take it.
The Republican controlled House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a passel of bills late Wednesday demanding the federal government transfer its lands to the state and setting a deadline to do it.
"This is the time for us to act," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan. "This is the time for us to stand up for the future of our state."
Democrats called the effort a waste of time, money and energy.
"I don't mean to be a naysayer, but I'm sorry, nay," said Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Salt Lake.
Legislative attorneys have warned lawmakers that trying wrest public lands from the federal government would be found unconstitutional.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart disagreed with those speaking against the bills.
"We don't believe it's pointless," she said Wednesday afternoon. "We think it’s a fight worth having."
State GOP leaders say the federal government has failed to keep its promise to Utah at statehood to sell or transfer the land to private ownership. The loss of revenues from the sale and the inability to tax the land robs the state's public school system of billions of dollars, they say. The federal government controls about 64 percent of land in Utah.
One resolution calls for the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker to send a letter to federal government demanding it sell off its public lands in Utah and deposit 5 percent of the proceeds into the state public education fund.
Another bill sets a Dec. 31, 2014 deadline for the federal government to transfer the land to the state.
The bills would eliminate Grand Staircase National Monument and wilderness study areas. They also give the state authority to permit oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and logging.
The measures also create a state Public Lands Commission to manage the lands.
"Do we have any confidence that if we get these federal lands back, we'll treat them any better than we treat our kids?" said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake.
Utah spends the least per pupil in the nation, and these efforts do nothing to help them now, Democrats said.
"I'll tell you what's government by gimmick, it's these four bills," King said.
The Legislature two years ago appropriated $3 million to the state Constitutional Defense Council for a potential lawsuit. A bill passed Wednesday would transfer $350,000 to the Utah Attorney General's Office to initiate lawsuit in April 2013 if the federal government fails address the state's demands.
Rep. Kay McIff, R-St. George, said he fears if the land goes on the auction block it could be bought by money interests in China and the Middle East.
The bills now move to the Senate where they're expected to be warmly received.
"If one side doesn’t keep the agreement, I believe that negates the agreement," Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said earlier Wednesday.
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