SALT LAKE CITY — Much like the Utah Legislature used outside legal counsel in its ethics probe of then-Attorney General John Swallow, independent legal advice will be sought for Utah's public lands quest.
A Tuesday vote by the Legislative Management Committee gave approval to the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands to pursue a request for proposals from law firms in the spring.
Democratic members of the management committee balked at the move, with Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, citing concern over what could end up being a blank check for the effort.
"My concern is I am not sure how much money I am committing to this process," Briscoe said, adding that litigation in the public lands war could drag on for a decade a more.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the Tuesday vote was not an approval for a contractual amount but will simply get the request-for-proposals process started once the legislative session ends in March.
"There is no money associated with this," Lockhart said, explaining the vote.
Commission Chairman Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said later that members want a legal analysis of the state's case for getting control of federal lands and what strategies Utah could potentially launch.
"We basically want to see what our chances are on this," he said.
Hinkins said commission members are encouraged by a recent economic analysis performed by a trio of university researchers that said the state could realize profits via the land acquisition after a couple years if it pursues an aggressive oil and gas management strategy.
The legal analysis is part of the requirement imposed by state law with this year's creation of the stewardship commission, which has been crafting a "next steps" approach in the lands dispute with the federal government.
Two years ago, the state passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act, demanding the federal government relinquish its control of 31 million acres of land in Utah, including national forests and Bureau of Land Management acreage.
Hinkins predicted the Utah-issued deadline of Dec. 31 for the federal government to act will come and go without any action, and supporters of the effort need to know what legal options exist.
Critics of the effort say Utah has no legal right to the lands.
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