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Utah Legislature: Trio of bills challenges feds over Utah land

SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative committee added three arrows to its quiver in the fight against the federal government by advancing a trio of bills Tuesday.

The bills propose to give the state eminent domain authority over certain federal lands, provide another strategy in the battle and fund the anticipated legal fight.

Sponsored by Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, HB143 was hailed as a way to challenge federal control over certain public lands that have remained untapped because of access issues.

Despite legal analysis by state attorneys that says the measure would not withstand court scrutiny, private attorney Mike Lee said he believes it is a fight worth fighting. Lee is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

"I cannot rule out the possibility of victory in this case nor can I assure it," Lee told members of a natural resources committee on Tuesday. "I believe we have a good-faith basis for an argument here, an argument the likes of which has yet to be addressed as far as I am able to discern. It is argument that strikes at the heart of the sovereignty of the state."

Two other bills sponsored by Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, also seek to wrest control of public access to property held by SITLA or the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, and specifically property Sumsion and Herrod said has been devalued by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to yank back 77 oil and gas leases that had been offered at auction.

"Most of the land is not in production. We cannot tax it and it cannot provide for us," Herrod said. "But the rewards of going after that land are in the billions and billions. I am not a gambling man, but if someone were to say I could put a quarter in a machine and had a chance to get a billion dollars, I would put that quarter in.

Utahns are almost evenly split when it comes to spending money to fight the federal government in an effort to gain control of federal land in the state, according to a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll.

Dan Jones & Associates found 48 percent of residents oppose the idea, while 47 percent favor it. People who identified themselves as Republicans were more in favor, 57 percent, than were independent voters, 40 percent, and Democrats, 23 percent. Jones polled 410 residents statewide Feb. 17 and 18. The survey has a plus or minus 5 percent error margin.

Those quarters for the legal fight come with Sumsion's HB323, which provides up to $3 million for up to three years to take on the federal government.

The money would come from SITLA revenues, a provision of the bill that brought objections from a PTA representative who said it was inappropriate to use school children's money to fight a battle with no guaranteed outcome.

"Utah PTA is very concerned about the risk involved with this," said Tyler Slack. "Despite the articulate argument of Mike Lee," this is gamble, he added. "The odds are not very important when you are gambling with someone else's money."

But Sumsion and Herrod stressed that because schoolchildren are the direct benefactors of trust land revenues, money for the initial stages of the fight should come from that fund. Others can step up later, they added.

"These three bills are a paradigm change of how we fund our education," Sumsion said. "This is a fight worth fighting, investing the $3 million that we are asking for is an investment well worth it."

Despite some questions over that funding mechanism by a few members of the committee, Vice Chairman Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, urged support of the measure.

Pointing out that the first two bills received unanimous support, Mathis was candid about his desire to see the third bill get approval.

"We've got to do something to gain sovereignty of our lands, now is the time," he said. "But when it gets to the point of funding it, we all get cold feet. … It is time we put our money where our mouth is and do it."