When the Utah Legislature passed a law demanding the federal government turn over 30 million acres of public lands in Utah to the state, proponents claimed this ultimatum was needed to generate money for public education. Many educators, parents and students were skeptical. We organized “For Kids and Lands” and argued that seizing public lands would not solve our education funding challenges, nor benefit our children. Instead, the tilting-at-windmills scheme would most likely end up burdening taxpayers and damaging the irreplaceable landscapes that make our state so special.
The economic report released last week only confirms our position. It reveals a real risk that this course of action could cost the state and our children hundreds of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, many in state government are glossing over this peril, preferring to focus on limited scenarios that “could” work financially.
Although proponents have told us that taking control of public lands will help fund education, the report simply does not corroborate that promise.
In order for education to benefit, the financial rewards of managing public lands must exceed the costs of managing public lands, plus the previous allocation of mineral development revenue from public lands.
Under the current system, Utah gets about half the federal revenue share from such mineral development. As required by law, this money is dedicated to things like local transportation and infrastructure projects across the state. Those needs will still be here if Utah takes over federal lands.
So education only gets money if the state brings in enough revenue to cover these existing budget allocations and the new cost of land management (which we do not have to pay now).
With that in mind, the economic study is telling: during the first year of Utah’s presumed public lands takeover, not one of the scenarios it evaluated would result in anything beyond a rounding error for the education budget.
In 2022, the last year for which the study projects both the benefits and costs of land management, eight of the 10 scenarios would be insufficient to meet existing budget allocations combined with land costs. Only two of the 10 scenarios would provide some small level of additional funding that could possibly be allocated to education. Furthermore, these two scenarios require a number of unlikely assumptions to be realized.
Who would gamble our children’s inheritance knowing there is an 80 percent chance this plan will end in a net loss to the state rather than creating funds for schools?
Is this the future we want for our children?
I have yet to hear proponents explain how it would handle the most likely scenario: one in which Utah taxpayers get stuck footing a bill we cannot afford. I do not see how public education realistically stands to benefit.
We do not need to sacrifice our priceless land heritage for an ephemeral dollar. This study warns that such a tradeoff could result in real financial harm. It is time our elected officials stop wasting money on this poorly planned endeavor. By all means, let us seek funding solutions for our education needs. This is not a solution.
Heather Bennett is a co-founder of “For Kids and Lands,” a grass-roots group advocating for common sense education and land-use policy. She is also a mother of three who has served on the Salt Lake School District Board of Education for 10 yea