SALT LAKE CITY — Constitutional concerns failed to derail a bill in the Utah House on Monday that would give counties the power to seize federal lands for development.
Many Republican lawmakers instead seemed willing and even excited to challenge federal control of public lands within the state.
“We will not have political equality until we control the lands within our boundaries,” said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, one of the most vocal advocates for the state’s sovereignty. “We’ve pilfered away our rights like a slab of bologna, one slice at a time. I am not going to put up with it anymore.”
House Bill 511, which passed the House 57-14 on Monday and now moves to the Senate, would give the counties eminent domain power over federal lands. The state was given that authority in 2010 by the Legislature, but has not used it.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, said counties are in a better position to identify federal land that could be better utilized. While the federal government controls millions of acres — approximately 60 percent of the state — a county may have just a few acres of “sagebrush that could be developed into a hotel.”
Legislative attorneys have cautioned the bill has is very likely unconstitutional, although it would probably take an actual attempt to seize federal land to prompt a lawsuit. The warning did not sway supporters of the bill, and Sumsion said the U.S. Supreme Court will likely have to decide the dispute at some point.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, countered by saying that entering into such a court fight is ridiculous, especially at a time when budgets are flat and economic concerns linger. The resulting lawsuit could cost “millions and millions of dollars” to argue claims that will almost surely be lost.
“Our legislative counsel isn’t here to make a ruling on whether something is constitutional,” King said. “They’re just trying to keep us out of trouble … and it’s highly probable this whole argument will go down in flames.”
But the potential costs didn’t discourage supporters, who argue the state was given the right to control the lands at statehood.
“The only way to overcome bad case law is put something forward to challenge it,” Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said.