With no controversy, the Senate passed by a simple voice vote Friday a long-sought bill for a land exchange that could bring $50 million to $200 million to Utah schools.
The bill, which still lacks approval by the House, allows federal officials to offer Utah some federal mineral revenue and land in exchange for 200,000 acres of state lands now surrounded by national parks, forests and Indian reservations.That state land has yet to be appraised but is considered to be worth $50 million to $200 million. It was given to Utah at statehood to raise money for schools but has not been developed because of the surrounding parks and forests.
Both houses of Congress passed slightly different versions of the bill last year, but Congress adjourned before those differences were ironed out in the final hectic hours.
"This bill will correct a serious problem that has actually existed for decades," Hatch told the Senate, which passed the bill at 3 a.m. after a long night of debate on the Democratic tax bill.
He added, "Utah and its school districts are struggling with the financial burden of educating the growing population of school-age children in the state.
"The citizens of Utah are not asking for a handout or for something to which they are not entitled. We are asking the Congress to help us remedy a situation to which it is a party" with the park-surrounded state land.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who co-sponsored the bill with Hatch, said, "We are one step closer in our attempts to address Utah's steep educational needs."
He added, "Timing was the downfall of last year's bill. Hopefully, the early passage in the Senate will help avoid the chaos at the end of the session. The schoolchildren of Utah deserve its enactment."
The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands has held hearings on a twin bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and Karen Shepherd, D-Utah.
Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, opposes the current bills. He wants the federal government to sell off huge tracts of federal land to finance the exchange, which environmental groups say would upset a fragile coalition backing the bills.
Utah Attorney General Jan Graham warned in testimony earlier this year that pressure for school funds is so intense that the state may consider developing some of the land if the exchange is not approved soon.
Because the federal government likely would not want such things as fast-food restaurants on state lands within national parks, court battles likely would result.
Utah officials have sought similar trades for decades. Former Gov. Norm Bangerter began pushing the current trade last year and negotiated with state, federal, environmental, Indian and land-user groups to find a compromise.