Utah lawmakers set aside another $7 million for national parks just as Congress reaches deal
Dennis Romboy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers voted to set aside more money to keep Utah's national parks open even as Congress made a deal Wednesday to end the 16-day federal government shutdown that spurred the legislation.
The Utah Legislature in a special session also passed two bills that allow state money to be used in several state agencies to offset the expected loss of federal funds. Gov. Gary Herbert signed the three bills, saying it shows the state's ability to come together to find solutions and help stabilize the recovering economy.
House Majority Assistant Whip Don Ipson, R-St. George, said Utah is sending a message to tourists around the world: "We're open today. We're open tomorrow, and we will be open next year when you come back again."
The short-term agreement in Washington makes the need for the measures less immediate. But House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, warned legislators to be prepared for future federal budget stalemates.
"We've got to be on top of this. This is going to happen over and over again, I have a feeling," she said. "This will be our reality in the next decade or so."
Congress voted Wednesday night to fund the government through Jan. 15 and raise the debt cap through Feb. 7.
The Legislature unanimously allocated $7 million to run Utah's five national parks, Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments and Lake Powell through Dec. 1. They also added the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to the list.
The bill also repays the Utah Division of State Parks the $1.7 million the state already sent to the U.S. Department of Interior last Friday to reopen the parks.
"This is our time to stand up and say, 'Yes, we can,'" said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, taking a not-so-subtle jab at President Barack Obama.
"In a crisis, you'll have those who run away and those who run in," he said. "We're running in as a Legislature. We're running in because there's a problem and we're going to fix it."
Many lawmakers donned green T-shirts reading "Utah Park Service" with the word "national" crossed out.
"While they're working for us, can we fire a few of them because I have a list," quipped Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who has a long-running feud with public lands managers.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said: "I don't know what to feel right now."
One of the Legislature's most ardent states' rights advocates, Ivory said the issue isn’t a shutdown but that Utah families and businesses were "under assault by the federal government."
"We act today because we can and because we care, unlike our federal government partner," he said.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said it was "galling" for him to listen to Ivory. He blamed the shutdown on "nihilists and objectionists" in Congress who don't believe in the constitutional system for making laws.
Although lawmakers agreed it was the right thing to do, they also had different views on what putting up the money means.
Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, called the financial arrangement "most unusual."
"I suspect you'll have to go back to colonial times to find a state bailing out the federal government," he said, adding it should be the exception, not the rule.
But Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said, "We're not bailing out any government. We're actually contributing money to keep the parks open."
The federal government did not commit to repay the state, but the bill urges Utah's congressional delegation to seek reimbursement.
"This is strictly an investment on our part and good faith that they'll give it back to us," Ipson said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, signed onto a bill in Congress that would pay back states within 90 days that use state money to reopen national parks.
"It’s only fair and right for the state to be reimbursed for picking up the federal government’s slack," Hatch said, adding he hopes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brings the bill up for a vote soon.
The money earmarked for national parks will run through the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and the agency would need legislative leaders' 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.
The Legislature also passed two other bills Wednesday to minimize the impact of a prolonged federal shutdown.
One covers health benefits and holiday pay for furloughed state employees who work in federal programs in the Utah National Guard, Workforce Services, Office of Rehabilitation Services, Utah Labor Commission and Utah Department of Health.
"I believe this is a nice thing for us to be able to do for our employees," the bill's Senate sponsor, Senate Majority Assistant Whip Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, said.
The other authorizes the State Board of Education to pay for federal child nutrition programs to offset a potential loss of federal funding.
Neither bill appropriates any money. It would come from existing budgets.
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