Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, warned a group of Utah legislators Monday they shouldn't bank on passage of a bill that would exchange about 200,000 acres of Utah's school trust lands for federal resources.
"If I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet the family farm on this one," said Hansen. He spoke to the Utah School Lands Task Force, a legislative panel studying lands issues.The bill, which is expected to be heard by the House Interior Committee Wednesday, involves an agreement between Utah and the federal government. It would give the Interior Department control of state lands that lie within the boundaries of national parks, forests and Indian reservations. In exchange, the state would receive income from federal mineral leases, a communications site in Uintah County and forest land near the Beaver Mountain ski resort in Cache County. The value of the exchange is estimated at $50 million to $200 million.
Hansen's pessimistic report outlined several snags upon which the land swap could get hung up.
One stumbling block is insistence by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., that a clause be included requiring congressional approval of any land deal involving more than 5,000 acres of land or $5 million. Miller, Interior Committee chairman, wanted a similar provision in a California desert wilderness bill. When that bill went to the Senate, it ran into a roadblock. Environmental groups support the provision.
Congressional oversight would protect the federal interests, but give "Utah's school trust lands the short end of the stick," Hansen said. "Wednesday we'll see how strongly Miller feels about his boilerplate language. If he prevails, I have a sneaking suspicion the bill will just sit. If we can work out an amicable agreement, it may get through."
The current session is slated to end in early October so congressmen can return to their home states to campaign for the November election. "And Utah's bill is not a top priority," he said.
Utah's own congressional delegation has had differences on how the bill should read, Hansen said. Several versions of the legislation have been presented, with the current bill evolving out of the give-and-take of the legislative process.
"There's nothing wrong with differences of opinion," said Hansen. He said he believes recent criticism of Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, is unfair. The senator wants southern Utah coal development included in the exchange - a move that Utah supporters of the exchange think could kill the deal.
State Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, a member of the legislative task force, told Hansen he agrees southern Utah's interests should get more consideration in the bill.
"Rural Utah is not happy (with the proposal,)" said Dmitrich. He said rural counties want a guarantee they will not lose "payment in lieu of taxes" money they have received. The payments go into a community impact fund the counties rely on heavily, and support flagging county budgets in some parts of the state.
Hansen said he believes provisions now in the bill to protect the in-lieu payments will hold.
"Some Eastern legislators feel PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) is the big Western rip-off," Hansen said. Western states are heavily impacted by the federal presence on their lands and in-lieu payments have been developed to offset their inability to generate taxes on the federal lands.
Utah officials pushing for the land exchange have suggested litigation may be the next step if the swap fizzles. Utah schools are being shortchanged because the lands in the federal tracts cannot be developed to create a return for education, they say.