SALT LAKE CITY -- Republican lawmakers appear willing to challenge the federal control of public lands in Utah despite warnings from their own attorneys about significant constitutional issues with a package of bills that moved to the Senate on Thursday.
The primary goal of the four bills, which all easily passed the House on Wednesday night, is to force the federal government to relinquish millions of acres of land to the state by the end of 2014. Military bases, national parks and Congressionally-designated wilderness areas would likely be exempted from the land grab.
The bills carry a warning from legislative attorneys that there is a high probability that a court will find the seizures unconstitutional. But Republican leaders in both chambers, as well as Gov. Gary Herbert, have said this week the potentially costly legal fight is important and they think the state could prevail.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said the warnings from legislative attorneys were advisory.
"It's our job to pass bills that our constituents want, and the courts can decide whether it's unconstitutional," Waddoups said.
The bills are also important for the state "to send a strong message," Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said. "We're trying to fight the overreach of the federal government."
While Republicans -- who have a two-thirds majority in both chambers -- have seemingly coalesced around the bills, most Democrats remain opposed because they fear the legal argument has little value.
"This is government by gimmick," Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said. "Do we really believe that any federal court will give all of the federal lands to Utah? It's not happening. We all know it's not happening."
Supporters, however, argue that the state is losing millions of dollars every year because federal lands cannot be accessed for energy development, mining and agriculture.
"We don't believe it's pointless. It's a fight worth having," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said. "The federal government made a commitment to sell all of the lands... they have not lived up to their end of the bargain."
Josh Loftin can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshloftin.