Utah lawmakers consider $85K-a-year plan to watch for federal laws infringing on state power

A bill sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory also lays out steps the state could take in response.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Ken Ivory comments on a bill, late in the evening, on the final day of the 2019 legislature, Thursday, March 14, 2019.

Utah lawmakers who have long been wary of federal encroachment on their powers are now thinking of spending an estimated $85,800 a year to monitor the U.S. government for actions that “implicate the principles of federalism or state sovereignty.”

Those potential costs are attached to a proposal brought forward by Rep. Ken Ivory, who wants the state to hire a university to keep tabs on federal laws and report back to Utah legislators.

Ivory suggested in a Monday morning committee hearing that legislators could hire Utah Valley University, which he said has a constitutional studies center and academics interested in assisting the state federalism commission.

“This is not about politics. It’s about structure,” Ivory, R-West Jordan, said. “It’s about how we maintain that balance, and it’s that balance in the system that protects all of our rights so that we do have diversity in all the states and yet unity throughout the United States.”

The legislator helped lead the charge almost a decade ago to create the federalism commission, a panel of state lawmakers assigned to investigate examples of federal overreach.

In recent years, the group has invested hundreds of thousands of state dollars in a software tool that they hoped would show the federal government has been paying Utah a fraction of what counties would get if the public land within their borders were subject to property tax. So far, that analysis hasn’t resulted in federal reforms to the payment in lieu of taxes (or PILT) program.

Under Ivory’s current proposal, HB209, the state would spend about $75,000 each year on a contract with a university and roughly another $11,000 in additional legislative staff time, according to a fiscal analysis.

“Lot of money,” remarked Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.

But Mayne, who sits on the federalism commission, said she’d cast her committee vote in support of HB209 because she believes it deserves a debate on the Senate floor.

The Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee unanimously voted to move the measure forward at the end of Monday’s hearing.

On top of letting the commission contract with a university, the bill also lays out a process for responding to perceived federal infringements in what the state believes should be its purview.

In these cases, the commission could recommend doing nothing or advise “appropriation action,” which could include writing to federal leaders, lobbying Congress, filing legal challenges or passing state laws to counter the U.S. government action.

The federalism commission would then work with the Legislative Management Committee or legislative leaders to determine next steps.

Maryann Christensen, executive director of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said the legislation would help Utah fight back against what she sees as a power-hungry federal government.

“The states have taken a position where they’ve decided to be subservient to the federal government, and it has not benefited us or our citizens,” she testified. “And it’s time for the states to learn what federalism means and then instruct the national government what it means and to try and restore that balance of power.”

A representative of Utah Parents United, a group that has opposed mask mandates in schools and raised alarm about critical race theory, also spoke in support of the measure — calling attention to the fact that federal education money often comes with strings attached.

Mayne later noted that she’d “never seen a state cut up a check from the federal government.”

The legislation has already passed the House and now heads to the Senate floor.