SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's newest U.S. senator has long championed state's rights and continues to campaign for shrinking the federal government's size and role in state affairs — including natural disasters.

But until those changes happen, Republican Sen. Mike Lee backs the state's request for millions in federal disaster relief funds to help Utah's Dixie rebuild from major flooding.

"That money is there," Lee said. "It's been appropriated for disaster relief, and I see no reason why Utah ought not be entitled to receive such federal funds."

December floods punished Kane and Washington counties, causing nearly $6 million in damage to roads, utility systems, parks and trails.

Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday formally petitioned President Barack Obama to declare the southern Utah flooding a major disaster enabling the federal funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On Friday, Herbert said states have traditionally accepted disaster relief money.

"We need to help those people in southern Utah," Herbert said.

Earlier this week on KUER's RadioWest, Lee questioned whether disaster relief should be a federal or state duty.

"I think that's one area where we ought to focus, one of many areas where we ought to focus, on getting that power back to the states, keeping that money in the states to begin with," Lee said.

That would ideally be the case even in a major disaster like Hurricane Katrina, he said.

"States will prepare differently if they understand that it's their responsibility rather than that of the federal government," Lee said.

During his campaign for Senate, Lee made states rights and shrinking big government a top priority. In an October appearance on KSL-TV's Sunday Edition with Democrat Sam Granato, Lee said, "I have come to believe that our federal government is too big and too expensive."

On Friday, Lee said his position hasn't changed, even though he backs Utah's request for federal aid.

"There's no change," Lee said. "Those are two different, analytically distinct issues. One relates to what is the government we have now in place, what programs now exist at the federal level. And the other question deals with what should be the proper role of the federal government versus the states."

One state lawmaker, who also thinks Utah should accept the money, said he backs Lee's skepticism of federal power, and pragmatism in accepting federal aid.

"Senator Lee, he's having to figure out how to navigate between the theory and the constitutional requirements of where government should be and where it actually is," said Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.