SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, calls it a fight the state needs to make.
Others say a looming struggle with the federal government over federal lands within the Beehive State is the only big solution for public funding of education. But to others, it is a silly effort that will cost the state millions to fight in court.
The showdown may be years down the road, but state lawmakers continue to put the pieces in place to mount the challenge.
Approximately 67 percent of the land in the Beehive State is federally controlled.
This year, the Legislature has been asked to approve an economic analysis of the transfer of certain federal lands to state ownership. The bill, HB 142, has passed the House and is expected to find favor in the Senate.
The study would be done by the state Public Land Policy Coordinating Office and come with a $450,000 price tag. Funding for the analysis was appropriated last session, so no new revenue is being requested.
Armed with the information from the study, officials hope to put together a detailed case as they push forward.
Despite the odds, there is a sense of momentum among a number of lawmakers.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, a lawyer, said Utah has a case based on a Supreme Court decision involving Hawaii’s bid to claim federal property as part of its enabling act, which set conditions for statehood.
He said the favorable ruling for Hawaii makes Utah’s case a little less of a David versus Goliath confrontation.
Other Western states, including Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Nevada, have also shown an interest in joining in the struggle, said Rep. Ken Ivory, West Jordan.
The state set a Dec. 31, 2014, deadline for the federal government to transfer title of public lands to the state. Lawmakers have been clear they are not seeking control of national parks or specific wilderness areas
Legislators are not looking for a court fight, but they’re shying away from it.
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, said it’s early in the process, but there is no looking back. “The train has left the station and something will happen.”
Ivory said power never concedes anything without a demand. Lawmakers are ready to legislate and then litigate, if necessary, to gain control of federal lands, similar to what Eastern states enjoy, he said.
Supporters believe gaining control of the land would generate a new revenue stream that could significantly boost state coffers.
Ivory points to North Dakota, with revenue from oil reserves pumping millions into state coffers, as an example of what can happen in Utah.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, thinks lawmakers are going to end up wasting time and money when everything settles on the issue.
“I honestly believe, in five or 10 years, it will be seen as a waste. In the meantime, our school kids, who need funding, will continue to be neglected.”
Sen. Jim Dabakis, head of the Democratic Party in Utah, thinks the state should work with, not fight, the federal government over the future of federal lands.
He calls the latest sagebrush rebellion part of an ongoing effort by Republicans to blame someone else for generational negligence in funding public education.
Estimates of court costs to litigate the case range wildly, depending on the source. Lawmakers appropriated up to $3 million to the Utah Attorney General’s Office to initiate the lawsuit, if needed, last year.
But it could cost a lot more than that.
Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, said the Legislature may face a tough funding question in a couple of years over the land control issue, if it ends up in litigation.
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, described the idea of challenging the federal government over land claims as a platform based on stupidity.
The case is legally flawed, he said, and Utah gave up its right to control the land with the enabling act. The state would be wasting money if it takes the matter to court, Groene said.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, claims the challenge has a more recent history in Utah’s favor than many think. He said the federal land act of 1976 was the last time the federal government made promises and covenants to the state and that the state can build a case based on those promises.
He thinks it is time to press the case in court.
“To say we need to continue to work with the federal government, heavens we’ve been trying.”
The federal government, he said, will not turn over title to the lands without a fight. “We have to stand up. We cannot take a moderate position.”