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Utah Legislature: House backs bill to 'take over' roads

SALT LAKE CITY — Passionate pleas to action proved successful Thursday in the Legislature, where the House endorsed yet another measure that will take on the federal government through use of eminent domain authority.

"Representatives, this is not only a prudent act, this is an act of self-preservation for our state," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.

HB 143 (le.utah.gov/~2010/htmdoc/hbillhtm/HB0143.htm), sponsored by Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, would allow the state to exercise eminent domain authority to take possession of roads that lead to certain school trust lands.

Herrod explained it would not be a "taking" of land but that the federal government would be compensated.

Such access to school trust lands would boost dollars for schoolchildren because if these particular parcels were developed, $1.5 million would go into the Trust Lands fund, Herrod said.

"Educational funding is difficult, and frankly we know it is going to get worse in the next 10 years as the demographics change and more children enter the school system," he said. "This is one of the ways we can fund education if we actually get control of our federal ground."

Lawmakers in support of the measure said Utah is at an extreme disadvantage considering close to 70 percent of the land within its borders is owned by federal government, in contrast to the East Coast where states like New York and others have less than 2 percent federal ownership.

"I do think this is a trendsetting, in fact, novel and some might say outlandish attempt at asserting a particular legal action," said Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber.

Although opponents said the bill is premised on a legal long shot that would necessitate overturning a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Powell pointed out that he thought the fight would be well worth it.

"I do think the assertion of this right will cause lots of discussion about the nature of the public lands and may very well cause political changes that we have so far, after arguing for years and years and years, had fallen on deaf ears."

The measure passed the House 57-13 and moves on to the Senate for consideration. Two companion bills that set up funding and provide other mechanisms for taking control of federal land are anticipated to be heard Friday.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com