SALT LAKE CITY -- A group of Utah lawmakers is ready to take on the federal government over the transfer of federal lands to the state, citing a promise made 116 years ago when Utah gained statehood.
Lawmakers considered five separate bills dealing with the transfer of land to the state in committee Tuesday. Members of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Standing Committee approved four of the five and will forward them to the House for consideration.
Those measures include a joint resolution on the federal transfer of public lands to Utah, House Joint Resolution 3, sponsored by Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, calling for the federal government to turn over federal land to the state by Dec. 31, 2014. Other measures address some of the mechanisms to make that happen, including an act addressing potential litigation of the issue at the federal level.
The bills dovetail with each other to cover the parameters of the issue, Barrus said.
The bills include House Bill 148, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, that addresses the transfer of public lands and a related study; House Concurrent Resoultion 1 a concurrent resolution to the federal government sponsored by Rep. Christopher Herrod, R-Provo; and House Bill 91S01, sponsored by Rep. Ken Sumison, R-Lehi, which establishes the Utah Enabling Act Litigation.
The potential transfer of public land is considered a key element to educational funding, said Barrus, who outlined the historic promise made in 1780 to allow states to fund education through the transfer of federal lands to the state. The federal government also made promises as recently as 1976, several lawmakers say. Barrus' resolution lists the grievances.
Ivory says there are millions of dollars in potential revenue in allowing the state to control federal lands. Approximately 66 percent of the land in the state is now controlled by the federal government.
"If sovereignty means anything, it means not having to say pretty please. We can't wait any longer. Our children can't wait any longer," Ivory said.
Sumison's bill addresses possible litigation at the federal level. He said local lawmakers are tired of waiting on the federal government to do the right thing.
"It's been over 100 years, it's time for a resolution to this issue. What is harmed is the education of our children. This will create thousands of jobs; we could eliminate our state income tax. That's what is at stake here," Sumison said.
Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow said the state is ready to take on the issue, if necessary.
A longtime critic of federal control of lands, Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, suggested the federal government will likely take punitive measures against some people in his district if the matter goes to court.
He worries the feds will cancel leases for grazing rights, water rights and oil and gas leases. He said the battle could be costly and wondered out loud if his colleagues recognize the battle lines the measures could draw.
"If you're not willing to stand up and be recognized, then don't put a lot of words on a piece of paper," Noel said.