$14 million price tag for public lands lawsuit gives governor pause
SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he's still reviewing whether he supports going forward with a proposed lawsuit against the federal government over its control of public lands, given the high price tag.
"I think the thing that gives us all pause is the cost," the governor told reporters during his first media availability of the 2016 Legislature. "You kind of have to handicap (it). We’re going to spend $14 million and our chances of success are what?"
At the same time, members of the House GOP caucus were listening to legal arguments for Utah asserting control over public lands made by attorneys brought together by the Legislature's Commission for Stewardship of Public Lands.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, told the caucus it's time for the state to make a decision.
"I think we're coming together, finally, in a way we can accelerate the pace in terms of this argument," he said. "Frankly, if we're not going to do it, if we're not going to move the needle on this, we've got to quit talking. We've got to do something."
No position was taken by the caucus, but no one spoke against legal action. Members of the Republican-controlled commission voted in December to pursue a lawsuit after hearing that recommendation from the team of lawyers they'd hired.
The commission's House chairman, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said the issue is "politically charged" and should be decided based on factual information. "This is an all-hands-on-deck issue."
Another member of the commission, Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, said the price tag isn't a consideration.
"The cost in my mind shouldn’t even be a discussion. It's trivial," Brown said. "How can you put price on self-determination and freedom?"
But the governor noted there's no guarantee the state would win in court. He said he'd prefer to see Congress resolve the long-standing issue of having more than 66 percent of the state's lands under federal control.
The public lands initiative recently unveiled by Utah GOP Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz is a "better, more sure way of getting it done," Herbert said. Still, he said the initiative doesn't exclude a lawsuit.
What would boost his enthusiasm for a court case, Herbert said, is for other Western states to join Utah in a lawsuit. Less than 5 percent of the land in states east of Colorado is under federal control compared with more than 50 percent in the West.
"I think there is discussion along that very line," the governor said. "Having other states of like mind joining together gives us a stronger voice and helps share the costs. If that was to be the case, I would certainly welcome that."
It will be up to Attorney General Sean Reyes' office whether the state files suit, but lawmakers would have to approve the funds. Hughes said later that the $14 million price tag is an estimate that initially gave lawmakers pause.
"I think it did before, but when you put it in its context, I don't think it's as big an issue," the speaker said. "What we're talking about, we really need to get to a point where we need to move forward and make a strong case for this or not."
The speaker said a decision might not be made by the end of the session.
"I think if there's a legislative will and we can have these conversations with our federal delegations as well as the governor, I would hope that by the end of 45 days we know more than we know right now," Hughes said.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy