Jackson: SITLA needs a makeover
The decision by the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration to lease 90,000-plus acres of state land in the Book Cliffs of Grand County demonstrates the flaws in the agency's current model for developing revenue for Utah's school system.
Management of our state lands should, by statute, require openness and collaboration with other vested interests, marketing in an open and competitive manner, be subject to elected representatives' oversight, and demonstrate a reasonable level of success.
SITLA's decision was made behind closed doors, with no collaboration, cooperation or coordination with anyone. Grand County elected officials were never formally consulted.
I fail to see any difference in SITLA's method for reaching this decision than with the way a president operating under the 1906 Antiquities Act can secretly and without collaboration set aside millions of acres of public land for national monuments. There is no difference in these two types of undemocratic processes.
Collaborating with Grand County and other vested stakeholders would have resulted in a balanced and acceptable approach, leaving some of this area as a roadless big game trophy area, and allowing oil and gas development in other areas. Everyone would have won.
Alternatives to providing revenue to the state in the roadless area, or exchanging those lands, could have been explored.
With no requirement for cooperation with other vested interests, these are the types of flawed decisions the public can expect.
I am unaware of any other entity managing state resources that has no oversight from either the governor's office or the Legislature.
SITLA officials have indicated, in their rather smug response to the governor's concerns, that they will "take his concerns under advisement." Again, what part of democracy does this fall under? Until this situation is remedied, the interests of our schoolchildren and rural counties are not going to be served. Every state-sanctioned agency should have to answer to some form of elected government.
SITLA is always quick to seek shelter from these types of ill-advised actions behind the mantra of "it's for the schoolchildren," implying that anyone with concerns or disagreement with its actions doesn't care about schoolchildren. The mantra works well for keeping Utah politicians silent.
But in reality, the state of Utah budgeted $3.2 billion for education in 2012. While SITLA generated $125 million in revenues last year, it contributed only $29 million to the education fund. That's less than 1 percent of Utah's total education funding needs.
SITLA is building an endowment fund to utilize interest from the fund to pay for public education and there is currently $1.4 billion in that fund. But how much money is required in the endowment to generate $3.2 billion of interest per year. How many decades will it take to generate that type of endowment? This is a flawed economic model and needs reanalysis.
Perhaps it's time to consider putting more of the yearly revenue into school funding, and less into an endowment fund that is unlikely to ever be large enough to meet all our education funding requirements. Perhaps it's also time to consider returning a larger portion of that revenue directly to the rural school districts within the county the revenue was generated in. The current formula is highly skewed toward Utah's major urban areas, simply as a result of the far greater number of students in those school districts.
SITLA has been at this work for decades, and the best it can do is a yearly 1 percent contribution to our education funding. I consider that an abysmal performance, an outright failure. I strongly suggest that it is time for a complete reanalysis of the current SITLA model for managing state lands.
Lynn Jackson is vice chairman and at-large member of the Grand County Council. His comments are his own and do not reflect a formal position of the County Council.