At least it could take a bite out of lofty expectations in Utah and Washington, D.C., that a historic land swap between the state and federal government is a done deal."People need a dose of reality," said Allen Freemyer, staff director for the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. "Can it be done? Yes. But if it happens, it will be the last hour of the last night of the session."
Hearings on HR3830, sponsored by subcommittee chairman Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, begin Tuesday with a parade of witnesses from the Clinton administration, the office of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and the state Office of School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
All are united in support of the bill, which will give the federal government 376,739 acres of state school trust lands now locked inside national parks, forests and Indian reservations in Utah. In return for the so-called "inholdings," the state will get $50 million in cash, another $13 million in coal royalties and roughly 139,000 acres of mineral-rich lands in nine counties.
Over the lifetime of the deal, it could bring in $1 billion for the state's schools.
Despite the near-unanimous support for the deal, Freemyer is saying the logistics of getting the bill through Congress this year at this late date is near impossible. Congress adjourns Oct. 9, but the reality is there are only about 40 days left for Congress to act.
Before Congress adjourns, Hansen's subcommittee must hear testimony, open the bill for amendments, vote on it and send it on to the full Natural Resources Committee that will then go through all the same steps again before voting on whether to send the bill to the full House.
"That process can take months," Freemyer said. "The prospect of it getting to the House floor with 40 days left . . . we haven't passed one appropriations bill yet and I can tell you floor time will be very precious."
Maybe too precious to consider a Utah lands bill, which means the legislation could get attached to some other legislation on a faster track for passage. Utah's congressional delegation does not have a good record of getting so-called stand-alone bills through Congress, but its members have managed to get their bills attached to other legislation.
The recent land swap involving Snowbasin, for example, was attached to legislation that had 110 other bills tagged onto it. If that happens to the lands swap bill, the Utah delegation runs the risk that the entire package of bills could die because of some totally unrelated issue.
"Nothing is ever certain around here," Freemyer said.
Mickey Ibarra, Clinton's director of intergovernmental affairs, warned Congress on Thursday not to add irrelevant issues to the Utah lands bill.
"That's unrealistic," Freemyer responded. "That's not how Congress works."
Furthermore, Congress never works fast. "Members of the House come to me all the time and want to know the probability of passing something this year, and I tell them next to none," Freemyer said. "We have stuff in the pipeline that was introduced right after we came into session and we are still trying to get them through the process."
Sources in Leavitt's office confirm that Hansen has expressed concerns to the governor there may not be enough time to get the lands swap passed during this session of Congress, even with Hansen's considerable influence at the subcommittee and committee levels.
"We have been told there are no guarantees," a Leavitt staffer said, "and we should not expect miracles. We have also been promised the Utah delegation will do everything possible to make it happen, that it will have the highest priority."
If Congress does not pass the land swap this year, it should not greatly affect the agreement, which does not specify any deadlines. But without legislation, ownership of the lands to be traded will remain with current owners, and as resources continue to be harvested on those lands it could affect the values assigned by negotiators to each parcel.
"The agreement would have to be re-examined on a year-by-year basis," the staffer said. "We are hoping that won't be needed, that we can get something this year. If not, we will do it next year."