Utah may spend another $7M to keep national parks open
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers might spend another $7 million to keep the state's national parks open into early December should Congress fail to end the ongoing federal government shutdown.
The money also would pay for running two national monuments and Lake Powell.
"We need to send a message to those who want to come to the state that we are open for business," said Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams.
The Layton Republican is sponsoring a bill that would cover the $1.7 million Utah sent to the Department of the Interior last week and set aside another $7 million for operating costs through Dec. 1. The Legislature will consider the proposal in a special session Wednesday.
The money would run through the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and the agency would need legislative approval to spend it. It would be drawn from the state's $24 million sovereign lands management fund, made up mostly of revenue from mineral leases.
"We're not just going to write them a check for $8 million," Adams said.
The state sent the Department of the Interior $1.7 million on Friday to reopen Utah's five national parks, Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments, and Lake Powell through Oct. 20. Visitors to the sites last weekend and businesses in tourist-starved gateway communities praised the agreement.
Utah pulled the money from the Division of State Parks with no guarantee the federal government would repay it. Adams' bill does not call for the state to seek reimbursement.
"Is there any gentleman's agreement?" House Minority Whip Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, asked at the Executive Appropriations Committee meeting Wednesday.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, described the payment as a "donation."
Lawmakers want the state to be repaid but don't expect that to happen.
"It's kind of a, 'Darn it, we really mean it,'" House Speaker Becky Lockhart said after the meeting.
Assistant Minority Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, questioned whether the state is setting a precedent by paying to run the parks when small businesses are hurting as well.
"We're picking winners and losers," she said.
Adams said Utah spends millions of dollars on tourism advertising abroad. Foreign visitors, he said, don't associate the national parks closure with federal or state government.
"The fact of the matter is that it is not a good reputation (for Utah) to have around the world," he said.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said the money is well spent whether the state gets it back or not.
Still, members of the state's congressional delegation already have a reimbursement bill in the works, and Stewart said he's "fairly optimistic" Utah can get its money back. Although the Interior Department can't obligate federal funds, he said repayment is implicit in the agreement.
"We will push that through on the legislative side," said Stewart, whose district includes Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.
Attorney General John Swallow praised Gov. Gary Herbert and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for working out the agreement, which lawyers in his office helped craft. But Swallow said it shows that states are far too dependent on the federal government.
"That's not healthy. That's not right," he said.
There needs to be a process in which Utah could automatically manage its national parks in the event of a future shutdown or lack of federal funding, Swallow said.
Stewart said he's working on legislation that would allow the state to immediately take over with the agreement that it would be reimbursed. State lawmakers might consider a similar measure when meets in general session in January.
"What a great thing that would be for all those business owners and all the tourists to know if they hear threat of a government shutdown, the state would step in and it won't be shut down for 10 days, and hopefully it won't be shut down for 10 hours," he said.
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