U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Orrin Hatch appeared with state officials at the Utah Capitol to pledge support Tuesday in the state’s effort to wrest control of most federal lands from Washington.
The two Republicans applauded the Utah Legislature’s passage of a bill demanding transfer of all federal lands not in national parks or designated wilderness to state control. They said because Washington controls nearly two-thirds of the state and unnecessarily impedes development that could fund schools, only state control can put Utah on equal footing with largely private-ownership Eastern states.
"This debate is over 100 years old," Hatch said. "I believe we’re in a climate where, if we do it right, the lands in our state can finally come under control of our state."
State legislation now awaiting Gov. Gary Herbert’s signature demands Congress relinquish control — as proponents contend the state’s enabling act required long ago — by 2014 or face a legal claim for the lands. Critics say the legislators are misreading both the law and Congress’ constitutional power to control land, and legislative attorneys said the measure has a high probability of failing a constitutional test in court.
Bishop, though, said the state’s delegation will work to help the state achieve its goal — perhaps with more luck after the fall election. Some Utah lands deserve preservation, he said, but the state is just as equipped as Washington bureaucrats to accomplish that. State control would mean more development and more revenues to fund schools that currently rank last in the nation for per-pupil expenditures.
"We are hurting our kids in the West by our refusal to simply use the resources we have," Bishop said.
Federal lands critics contend the state would reap more school revenues by privatizing some of the lands and putting them on the tax rolls. But the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance responded Tuesday with figures questioning just how crippling federal ownership is for Utah schools.
Despite its low proportion of private lands, SUWA attorney Heidi McIntosh said, it’s a relatively large, sparsely populated state that has 6.78 acres of private or state land per capita — compared to school-funding leader New York, with just 1.57 acres per capita.
New York, like dozens of other states, spends thousands of dollars more per student because it values education and taxes accordingly, McIntosh said. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management spends $150 million a year in Utah and employs 800 people with expertise that the state could not match in maintaining Utah’s international tourism draws.
"It makes no sense to claim that the presence of federal lands is to blame for the lack of funding for schools," she said.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said he proposed one of the bills backing state ownership — HB148 — in part to give Utah a future more like North Dakota, where a current oil boom on private lands is fueling state revenues. Just raising taxes isn’t the answer, he said, as Illinois found out this year when businesses threatened to leave after a major rate increase.
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, said he believes Republican victories for the White House and U.S. Senate could end this long debate in the state’s favor.
"If I’ve ever seen the time that the stars have lined up," he said, "it’s coming."
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