Washington • Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, wants to remove some of the drama from any future government shutdown by creating a mechanism for states to run national parks and get reimbursed when Congress eventually strikes a budget deal.
Stewart, a freshman House member, introduced legislation Wednesday to formalize what Utah leaders accomplished during the recent 16-day partial shutdown. Gov. Gary Herbert and his staff negotiated directly with the Interior Department to pay $1.7 million to reopen the state's five national parks and three national monuments for up to 10 days.
Other states followed suit. Arizona shelled out $651,000 to open the Grand Canyon. Colorado, South Dakota and New York also paid to unlock the gates to national lands that were big tourist draws.
The National Park Service says it doesn't have the legal authority to repay the states, so politicians are seeking federal reimbursements through an act of Congress.
All four of Utah's House members are sponsoring legislation to recoup that money, as is Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Stewart's bill would allow states to enter into agreements with the government in case of a shutdown. It also would mandate repayment of any state money used to keep federal sites open for tourists.
He said the bill would spare small towns economically reliant on these federal lands, suggesting the shutdown hit the tourism, mining, timber and transportation industries hard.
Stewart also worries about tourists who wouldn't plan a future trip to Utah if it fell at a time when Congress was negotiating a budget.
"If there was a threat of the shutdown heaven forbid if we get ourselves in this situation again if you are a tourist your thought is, 'Well I'm not going to plan a trip to Zion.' This would offer certainty to those folks," he said.
That scenario could happen.
The most recent shutdown, the first in 17 years, came after Republicans tried and failed to force Democrats to delay or dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The impasse ended Oct. 16 with a short-term deal that funds the government until mid-January.