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Utah federalism commission begins wish list of returning power to the state

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SALT LAKE CITY — It feels like Christmas among lawmakers on Utah's Capitol Hill, where they're making a list and checking it twice to detail those areas where they feel the federal government should back off, get out and let Utah run its affairs.

The list, shepherded by the Commission on Federalism, comes at the request of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and finds its impetus in the inauguration address by President Donald Trump, who promised to return power to the people.

"We are in a unique time," said Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, during a Wednesday meeting of the commission. "We have a changing administration, we have a committment from this new administration that there is a desire to transfer power back to the states. That is a conversation we have not heard in a long time."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said lawmakers in Utah and around the country see the changing administration as an opportunity to correct a course that has veered off in the wrong direction.

"I am involved with the Assembly of State Legislatures and a couple other organizations to try to stop this craziness, this drift of power of the states to the federal government," Niederhauser said. "I say, 'Let's go for it.'"

Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, and Senate commission chairman, said lawmakers have a blank slate to decide how far they want to take restoration of state's rights, and the various committee leaders should plunge deep into the details. From those details, due in late February, there will be a specific wish list cobbled into a resolution for a vote before the Utah Legislature.

Christensen added that much of the discussion is necessarily philosophical.

"Do we want to reform Medicaid, or do we want to do away with it completely? How far do you want us to go on changing these issues? Do we want to define the level of poverty that we want to assist, or do we say it is not government's business?"

Christensen added that he wished the arena of health and human services was a simple as public land issues.

"That is very cut and dried. Give us the land and quit. Let us manage it," he said.

Commission members said there has been a steady erosion of power from the states, which have largely acquiesced that authority to the federal government.

"The states have not done their role in being a check on the federal government," said Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove.

The presentation included details about an executive order issued by President Ronald Reagan on federalism, which required a careful analysis of a new federal policy's necessity and consultation with states where possible.

Ten years after that order, a General Accountability Office report looked at how many directives were issued by federal agencies and if there had been a review to see if they complied with the principles outlined in the executive order on federalism.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said the Department of Transportation had issued in one year 3,980 directives and 2,053 had been reviewed. In the case of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there were 1,914 directives issued in a year, but Snow said none were reviewed.

"The reality is that we have lost track of that," Snow said. "We say in physics that nature abhors a vacuum, but that is also true in political power. And that is, if we don't push back and if we don't assert our rights with respect to what our jurisdiction is, that vacuum will be filled, is being filled by the federal government."