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Public lands lawsuit already a focus of 2016 Legislature

SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers appear poised to spend as much as $14 million to sue the federal government over control of public lands as the Utah Legislature opened its 2016 general session Monday.

Lawmakers started the 45-day session on a somber note, holding a moment of silence in the House and Senate for fallen Unified police officer Doug Barney, who was gunned down at the scene of a traffic accident on Jan. 17. His funeral was Monday.

"We live in a country of peace. Yes, we just recognized the loss of one who was charged for our protection. Our hearts go out to his family, but for the most part our lives are peaceful," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said in his opening speech.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, also addressed the fatal shooting, as well as the injuries sustained by another officer on the scene, Jon Richey, in his speech to the House.

"We remain committed to the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to ensure we all live in a safe environment," Hughes said to sustained applause from representatives.

Both Niederhauser and Hughes spoke of their goals for the session, laying out agendas that include action on education, water, air quality and transportation, as well as taking on the federal government over its control of public lands.

Last month, a commission dominated by Republican lawmakers voted to draft a lawsuit with the goal of eventually transferring federal public lands into state ownership.

A team of lawyers the Legislature hired told lawmakers there is a chance Utah could take the case directly to the U.S Supreme Court, which would cost about $14 million. Attorney General Sean Reyes' office is currently reviewing the recommendation.

"This is an issue that does not have to be partisan. This is an issue that does not have to be filled with rancor and dissention," Hughes told the House to applause from Republicans but not Democrats.

A lawsuit combined with the public lands initiative recently introduced in Congress by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, he said, "gives us our greatest chance to not only make this fight but win this fight and see finally our public lands managed by this state."

Hughes said he's had it with what he described as the federal government's attempt at "population control." He said 90 percent of Utahns live on 1 percent of the state's land, "a form of gerrymandering" that limits their influence since representation in Congress is based on population.

The speaker said later in an interview the potential cost of the lawsuit has gotten a lot of attention, but the actual price tag has not yet been determined. He said lawmakers would "not just throw out a dollar amount and work backward."

Hughes said he does not have "a defined, step-by-step process" for advancing the issue this session but expects to see at least the legislative and executive branches, along with Utah's congressional delegation, working together toward a common goal.

Niederhauser, who did not raise the public lands issue in his speech to the Senate, told reporters later he believes Utah has a case to make before the high court because it wasn't treated the same as other states.

"If we don't go ahead and force this question, there'll continue to be turmoil over whether the state ought to move forward to try and get the lands in state control rather than in federal control," he said. "I think it's time that we settled the question and then deal with the results of that."

Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers need to weigh whether the lawsuit is worth the cost. Democrats have said there are better uses for the money.

"This a public policy issue on one hand and legal issue on another, and it's going to get complicated," Davis said.

Sen. Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said the lawsuit would be worth the cost because the state could reap billions of dollars in revenue from resources that are now locked up.

But, Niederhauser said, state control doesn't mean privatization of the lands, adding that people want them to remain public.

"This is not about development," he said.

In his Senate speech, Niederhauser said lawmakers must have courage and vision to make "decisions of a century" now on difficult issues that impact Utah's future.

"Sometimes there are pitchforks and torches, but that's our job," he told senators.

Lawmakers, Niederhauser said, shouldn't limit or dictate what should or shouldn't be considered during the session because the Legislature is designed to decide matters that people bring forward.

"And thank heavens it's only 45 days. Let's never extend it," Niederhauser said.

The Senate president noted that lawmakers took on tough issues last year in raising the gas tax for the first time in 17 years and approving a new site for the state prison. He said lawmakers need to continue to "pay it forward."

Hughes praised House members for not taking "the easy way out" on difficult decisions, "not even in the face of what I think might have been some of the most searing criticism that I have felt and that I know we have all felt."

The speaker also referred to last session's battle over Medicaid expansion that pitted the House against both the Senate and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, suggesting their differences were overplayed by the media.

"We know the truth," Hughes said, calling the House's working relationship with the governor "incredible," even though there are times when there is disagreement.

In a speech that lasted nearly an hour, the speaker said he hopes to make progress this session on improving air quality with a long-term goal of ending "red air" days in the state and advancing water development.

He also called for lawmakers to "fulfill the vision of our late Speaker Becky Lockhart" and push for more technology in Utah classrooms.

Lockhart had tried unsuccessfully to win approval for replacing textbooks with computers. She died shortly before the start of the 2015 Legislature after a brief battle with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal brain disorder that has no cure. She was 46.

Later, Hughes said he sees that initiative as less oriented toward buying computers and more focused on training for teachers to ensure the devices eventually purchased are used.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he was disappointed that Hughes failed to acknowledge Democrats' role in getting important bills passed.

“He chose to highlight legislative actions that require bipartisan support, while at the same time treating the Democrats as invisible," he said.

King said if the Legislature wants to invest in education in a way that is sustainable and will make the state competitive in the future, lawmakers cannot pat themselves on the back for funding growth and pitch technology programs the state doesn’t need.

Utah needs well-paid teachers and salaries that encourage people to go into that profession, funding that lowers classroom sizes, and an education system where students are taught the best information in the best way based on their individual needs, he said.

"An iPad cannot do that. A teacher can," King said.

In addition to speeches from legislative leaders, the session's first day included music and prayer.

Elder Ronald A. Rasband, one of the newest members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve, gave the invocation in the Senate. Elder Gary Stevenson, also a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve, prayed in the House.

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