Utah legislators who grumble about federal intrusion got a gut-check vote Tuesday evening with a showdown over whether the state should reject $71 million in federal funds.
For 15 minutes and through multiple votes, legislators were deadlocked, with hard-line Republicans voting to reject the federal dollars and Democratic lawmakers joining with them in an attempt to call their bluff.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, led the opposition to the federal money, suggesting the state shouldn’t count on the U.S. government to provide money going forward. He was joined by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who complained about federal mandates that come with the dollars.
“That is $71 million that [the federal government] took from us in the first place … and are returning it with their strings. So it really is our money,” she said. “The question is: How many of their strings do we have to accept to deal with our money that probably shouldn’t have left here in the first place.”
Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, warned rejecting the money would shut down the state’s environmental quality, conservation and firefighting programs and could lead the federal government to take over Utah’s environmental programs.
Ultimately, opponents to the federal money blinked, with Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, changing his vote, along with Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Rep. Sue Duckworth, D-Magna.
“I think there was a little bit of a statement there, where a number of people just wanted to say federal dollars now coming in are not sustainable,” Okerlund said. “My original vote was a statement that we need to be thinking about that.”