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No guarantee Utah will get back all money spent to reopen national parks

Published: Monday, Oct. 21 2013 6:58 p.m. MDT

Michael Gleason, of Sandy, middle, watches the sunset after a hike inside Capitol Reef National Park on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013.

Chuck Wing, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — There's no guarantee the state will get back all of the $1.7 million paid to the federal government to reopen Utah's national parks during the shutdown, a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday.

"We're still trying to figure that out now," said Robert Spendlove, the governor's deputy for state and federal relations.

Spendlove said the state's top priority was getting the parks reopened as quickly as possible.

Utah's contract with the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior spells out the state is due a partial refund because the shutdown that began Oct. 1 ended six days into the 10-day deal.

That adds up to a little more than $666,000. What's uncertain is whether the federal government will come up with the nearly $1 million the state spent to get the parks up and running in time for the Columbus Day holiday.

"The specifics of how that money would be refunded was left up in the air, to be frank," Spendlove said. "It's not clear right now whether we and the other five states will be repaid."

Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota, New York and Tennessee also made deals with the federal government to use state dollars to reopen various sites, including the Statute of Liberty.

"It's a good, broad-based coalition," Spendlove said, representing large and small states, as well as geographic and political diversity.

That kind of influence should help prod Washington, D.C., into action, he said.

Still, even if the money is not appropriated, Spendlove said Utah's expenditure was worth it. The deal was approved during a special session of the Legislature last Wednesday.

Leaders agreed "the most important thing is the economy of southern Utah," he said. "The economic impact of keeping these parks closed for that amount of time was enormous," an estimated $25 million a week.

Hardest hit were the small communities that serve as gateways to the state's five national parks. For example, Spendlove said Ruby's Inn just outside Bryce Canyon National Park reported losing $2 million during the shutdown.

Attorneys for both the state and the federal agencies are working out details of how the unspent money Utah sent to Washington, D.C., will be returned.

"There's no issue involving the extra money not spent," Spendlove said.

He said there was hope that the money already spent would be appropriated in the bill passed by Congress 16 days into the shutdown, on the eve of the United States defaulting on its debts.

That didn't happen, so now the state is looking for other means to get its money back.

The contract, which calls the state's payment a donation, promises that if money is set aside by Congress for reimbursement, the federal government "will promptly take action to do so."

If the repayment were to come from the White House or the Department of the Interior, "it would be relatively quick, meaning weeks.," Spendlove said. "If it is a congressional solution, it probably won't be until Jan. 15."

Members of Utah's congressional delegation have pledged to help the state get back the nearly $1 million, but they're not all convinced that will happen.

"It should be a sure thing, but I don't trust these people around here," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said.

Even so, Hatch said it ultimately will be too tough for Congress to say "no."

"That's going to be one where they're going to have a rough time not paying us back," said Hatch, co-sponsor of a bill requiring the repayment. "They like national parks and monuments as much as we do."

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, wasn't ready to bet on Utah seeing that money again.

"I couldn't put odds on it," Bishop said. "But it's a possibility that's going to require us to work very hard to make sure that they are treated fairly."

Utah House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, who helped negotiate the contract with the federal government on behalf of legislative leadership, said he is "fairly optimistic" the state will be repaid.

"But there's always the thing about 'the check is in the mail,'" Dee said. "When I see it, once the state does, and it's deposited, then I'll feel confident."

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said that could take awhile.

"My guess would be yes, the state will get its money back. But it may not be very quickly," Burbank said, noting the reimbursement being sought by Utah and other states will likely be overshadowed by new budget negotiations.

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsPolitics

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