Ute Indian dissidents elected to the tribe's ruling Business Committee drove a hard bargain on water issues with Gov. Norm Bangerter in a reservation meeting Wednesday billed as a get-acquainted session.
But two of the three newly elected members of the six-member Business Committee sounded conciliatory notes on negotiating a lower oil severance tax levied by the tribe and the state on the oil-rich, 4 million-acre reservation.Bangerter flew to eastern Utah's Uintah Basin to meet with county officials, state legislators and Ute leaders, three of whom were elected to office last month and have spoken strongly against state interference on Indian land.
"I came out here not to resolve all the issues but to listen," Bangerter told non-Indian government officials during a breakfast meeting.
Foremost among issues on the minds of Indian and non-Indian officials alike was water, an especially valuable commodity in the sun-parched Uintah Basin, and oil, the economic mainstay of a two-county area plagued by 81/2 percent unemploy-ment.
The Ute dissidents-turned-leaders - Luke Duncan, Curtis Cespooch and Stewart Pike - told Bangerter they want control of Uintah Basin water that now serves users along the Wasatch Front via the Central Utah Project.
But Duncan and Pike agreed with Bangerter that they should negotiate on lowering the state's 4 percent severance tax on oil and gas production and the tribe's sliding-scale 10 percent severance tax to relieve area oil producers.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week in Cotton Petroleum vs. New Mexico that both states and tribes could tax oil and gas production on reservations despite oil company claims that the practice amounted to double taxation.
On the water issue, the three tribal dissidents said they want to scuttle the Ute Water Compact, signed by the tribe and state in April.
The pact gives Utes the right to use 496,000 acre feet of water from the Central Utah Project but imposes state jurisdiction over tribal water rights guaranteed by the Winters Doctrine of 1908.
"We don't want anybody from the Wasatch Front telling us what we need and don't need," Duncan said. "We want control of the tap."
Pike said the tribe could rely on the Winters Doctrine of 1908 to control water flowing from the reservation to the Wasatch Front, adding the Ute Water Pact could be repudiated by a recall vote on the reservation.
Bangerter said the agreement took eight years to forge, and it would be "folly" to abandon it without alternatives.
Dee Hansen, state director of Natural Resources, said abolishing the agreement might result in the Utes losing the 496,000 acre feet of water the state agreed to allot the tribe in the pact.
"We (the state) don't think it was a good deal. We think we gave too much," he said. "You may end up a lot shorter than you are."
While water discussions brought stern looks from the governor and the dissidents, Bangerter and the Utes saw common ground in negotiating oil, natural gas and mineral production severance tax on the reservation.
The state collects $4 million yearly on oil taken from Ute trust lands under a 4 percent state tax, the Tax Commission said. The Ute Tribe projected it would gain $5 million yearly from its sliding-scale 10 percent tax.
Oil industry officials say the "double taxation" will force production to a halt on reservation, which yields 1,000 barrels of oil daily, because of hefty tax expenses added to already high production costs.
"I'm not opposed to lowering the state's severance tax, but I am opposed to doing so unilaterally," Bangerter said, calling the amount of revenue generated by the tax minimal.
Duncan told the Deseret News that when he is sworn into office May 8 he will initially work to maintain the Ute severance tax but later said, "We're going to have to take a look at it."