The Legislature's own attorney have advised lawmakers that any attempt to force the federal government to transfer its public land to Utah has a high probability of being declared unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1872 that only Congress has the power to dispose of federal land.
Barrus and Ivory counter by citing recent high court rulings characterizing the acts creating Western states as "solemn agreements" and that the states should get the "benefit of the bargain."
"We still believe they have not agreed to live up to their side of the contract," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. "If one side doesn’t keep the agreement, I believe that negates the agreement."
The House votes were mostly along party lines, though some Republicans broke ranks on a resolution demanding the federal government transfer the land, including Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield.
McIff said "count me out" if those public lands go on the auction block. State ownership, he said, is no guarantee of protection. And though the tendency is to think Utahns would buy the land, he said he fears interests in China or the Middle East could step, which would be "catastrophic" for the state.
Barrus said the state would create the Utah Public Lands Commission to manage the land as it sees fit, which would include recreation, hunting, fishing, tourism, agriculutre, oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and logging. But he said the intent is not to "rape and pillage" the land through mining or exploration.
Democrats call the effort a "gimmick" that wastes time, resources and energy on the pie-in-the-sky notion that Utah will derive billions of dollars for public education.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said the state shouldn't spend money on "suspect" legal theories that will send it "down a rat hole that is not going to pan out in the end."
Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, supports legislators' efforts and encouraged them to keep the bills and resolutions coming. He likes to display a U.S. map showing the stark contrast between federal land in the East and the West. The right half shows scattered spots of red designating federal ownership. The left half is nearly all red.
Bishop said people's initial reaction is "wow" and then, "So what?"
Said Barrus, "We're going to answer the so what."
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