Thursday, March 4, 2010

Utah House mounts new federal lands challenge

Utah lawmakers voted Thursday to condemn federal lands in a message meant to reach the Supreme Court and challenge the U.S. government to open lands to development for school funding.

HB143 passed the House 57-13 over Democratic objections that pressing the court case will be costly and likely unsuccessful. Republicans called it a necessary fight to reverse federal oppression and the state's chronically worst-in-the-nation per-student school funding.

"Our schoolchildren have been robbed," said Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, the bill's sponsor.

Herrod asserts that, despite Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, the state is "sovereign" over lands in its boundaries and has power to reclaim those that the federal government did not acquire with state approval. He concedes that Utah gave up claims to federal lands at statehood, but said the federal government has broken its pledge to put the state on "equal footing" with other states by keeping more than two-thirds of the state in federal ownership.

His bill would authorize taking segments of federal land for roads to access state-owned lands for energy production and other development to aid schools. A companion bill proposed by Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, would take $1 million in state revenues over three years to cover the legal bills.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, called the bill "an act of self-preservation for our state."

House Democrats argued against the action because they said it would waste money in court fees over something the Supreme Court already has decided. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he wants more money for Utah schools but also believes in lawmakers' duty to live under Supreme Court rulings.

"We have an allegiance to the United States of America and to case law that has been developed through generations," King, an attorney, said.

Herrod said previous cases before the Supreme Court were split decisions, and a new challenge is warranted.

"Case law is never overturned unless you have another court case," he said.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, said the potential advantages of a court victory are worth the risk of defeat and loss of legal fees.

"We may very well be termed crazy somewhere by constitutional attorneys around the country," he said, "but every argument that was once asserted by someone had to be started by someone."

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