Four of Utah's five members of Congress introduced bills Tuesday to quickly push a land trade that could bring $50 million to $200 million for cash-poor Utah schools.But Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah chose not to endorse it, even though he backed a nearly identical bill that almost passed last year. He said he wants to improve the bill, even if it delays the land deal that others want quickly.
"Last year, I supported it because it was the best we could do at the time," Orton said Tuesday. "Now at the beginning of a new Congress, we can take our time and work out issues." He wants to ensure that the overall percentage of federal land ownership in Utah does not increase because of the trade.
But Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, was among those saying she would rather have quicker action. "The purpose of this bill is to improve Utah education. We should never forget that," she said. "We should pursue it with as much haste as possible."
The bills - introduced by Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, R-Utah, in the Senate and by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and Shepherd in the House - would trade 200,000 acres of state land now surrounded by national parks, forests and Indian reservations.
Those lands were given to Utah at statehood to help raise money for schools but cannot be developed because of the surrounding parks and forests.
In return for them, Utah would receive fair market value - estimated somewhere between $50 million and $200 million. It would come through exchange of some federal lands, or mineral royalties on some federal tracts of up to $12.5 million a year until the full value is achieved.
The idea was first proposed by former Gov. Norm Bangerter. A fragile coalition of school, environmental, Bush administration, Indian and other groups backed it last year. It passed both houses, but the House adjourned before it passed some final Senate amendments that former Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, added. So it died.
New Gov. Mike Leavitt has endorsed the bill this year, and Hatch and Hansen said Clinton administration officials have said they are willing to look at it.
Even though Orton didn't sign on to the bill, he said he does favor a school trust land exchange - and will work with the delegation to achieve it.
"I don't favor the sale of state lands to the federal government. I can't support increasing the percentage of federal ownership of land in the state," he said. Ranchers, miners and timber industries in his district have long complained about restrictions on federal tracts.
Orton said he wants amendments to require the federal government to sell off equal acreage of land to the public for all acreage it obtains through the proposed trade. He said he has not yet talked to the new Clinton administration about that.
Hansen, who like Shepherd is on the House Natural Resources Committee that will oversee the bill, said the bill will likely go through many changes before it passes.
"This is a starting point," he said.
Hatch said the delegation is willing to work with Orton to address his concerns, "but frankly I don't have great hope for them."
Hatch also said the land trade is needed to correct a "pathetic and irresponsible" situation where "Utah spends more on education as a percent of its total budget than any other state in the nation" but still has among the largest class sizes, and receives less federal money per pupil than any state.