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3 BILLS NEAR OK BUT FACE BARRIERS

Three initiatives vital to Utah's future are in critical condition as Congress heads into its last month before adjournment.

One would raise the debt ceiling on the Central Utah Project by $922 million to complete irrigation, recreation and environmental portions of the project designed to bring water from eastern Utah to the thirsty Wasatch Front.Another would allow Utah to trade school trust lands that it cannot now develop to raise money for schools because they are surrounded by national parks, forests and Indian reservations.

The third would kill a plant in Mississippi that would build new-generation space shuttle boosters that would replace boosters now made by Thiokol and 4,000 workers in Utah.

All three face huge final hurdles with time running out. But all are also tantalizingly close to passage after up to decades of work that overcame even larger obstacles.

For example, the Utah delegation, water and power users, Indian tribes and environmental groups hammered out a compromise three years ago on the CUP completion bill. It took months of negotiations. Once done, passage seemed assured and easy.

But House Interior Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and other California members held the CUP and other Western water projects hostage by tying them in bills to controversial issues they are pushing.

First, it was to help reform of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Now, it is to help resolve how to distribute water from California's Central Valley Project.

Different versions of a Western water projects bill have passed both houses, so a conference must work out differences. Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, says he has seen no real movement on solving the California problems and worries the CUP may again not pass because of it.

Passage is vital because the CUP has bumped into its debt limit, and much construction cannot proceed beyond next year unless it passes. Watch for Garn to filibuster all water and energy bills later this month to try to free the CUP if progress on the water bill does not come soon.

The school trust lands bill has been pushed in various forms for decades. But the current version negotiated by Gov. Norm Bangerter is the closest ever to a passable product, with backing from the state and federal governments, environmental groups and Indian tribes.

The trouble is that key players in Congress are not totally on board. Miller - again - is pushing for provisions that Garn and maybe Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, will not accept.

Miller wants Congress to approve any swap involving a parcel of federal land larger than 5,000 acres or worth more than $5 million. Garn says that is undue intrusion and flatly will not back any bill with it.

Miller and some environmental groups also want a specific list in the bill of federal lands - mostly coal leases - that could be traded. They worry the state otherwise might try to develop wilderness or other sensitive lands. Garn and Orton don't object to including the list but don't want trades to be limited to land on it.

Watch for the delegation to continue to seek compromises, but time is running out. Worse, key players backing the trade - such as Bangerter, Garn, Owens and President Bush - are either retiring or are in close races. So if the bill does not pass this year, it may take years for another chance.

Funding for the Mississippi plant affecting Thiokol has been slashed both in the Senate (where Garn cut it in committee votes) and in the House (where Owens surprisingly beat powerful Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., whose district contains the plant, on a floor vote).

The trouble is that all sides report that plant supporters plan to try to increase plant funding in a conference to work out differences in the bill. The White House - possibly worried about losing votes in the key states of Mississippi and Alabama - has sent conflicting statements about whether it would support that.

Unless Garn and others can find ways of replacing jobs that could be lost from the plant in Mississippi, both sides say chances are good that enough funding will be given to keep the plant alive for at least another year.

Watch for Garn to try to find those jobs and fight moves in the conference to add funding.

If he cannot, Owens at least will try to kill the resulting conference report - but it won't be easy. And if squabbling results in no NASA funding bill passing, Congress may pass a continuing resolution to cover funding gaps at previously approved levels - which could also keep the plant alive.