SALT LAKE CITY — Top lawmakers said Monday that Utah may pursue a lawsuit this year to win control of about 31 million acres of public lands owned by the federal government and lawmakers are willing to foot the bill.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, opened the Legislature's 45-day annual session by telling his colleagues that he hopes that either through a lawsuit or an effort spearheaded by two Utah congressmen, that the state will push forward this year and gain more control.
"Because I've had it. I've had it with federal management or mismanagement," Hughes said.
Utah passed a law four years ago demanding that the U.S. government transfer the land by 2015. Supporters argue Utah would be a better manager than the federal government, which currently controls about two-thirds of Utah's land.
Utah has already approved paying up to $2 million for a team of constitutional lawyers to analyze the state's legal arguments and recommend that Utah's attorney general pursue a lawsuit, which is estimated to cost up to $14 million.
Hughes and Senate leaders said Monday that's a cost most lawmakers are willing to pay.
Critics argue the lawsuit will be a costly folly that the state will lose because it doesn't have legal rights to the land.
Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said they think Utah can pursue a lawsuit while supporting an ambitious public lands proposal from U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop and U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, both Republicans from Utah. It would give Utah more control and seeks guarantees that the president won't use broad authority to declare new national monuments. Bishop and Chaffetz say they plan to introduce it as legislation in Congress soon.
State Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said if Utah doesn't push forward on both proposals, the state runs the risk that the president declares a new national monument in Utah over the objections of locals.
Environmentalists and Democrats argue the plan from Chaffetz and Bishop heavily favors the energy industry instead of protecting wild spaces and argue Utah stands little chance of winning its land takeover lawsuit.
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said Monday that lawmakers need to hear from the critics and consider their true chance of winning the case before agreeing to pay for it.
A 2014 study by three state universities found that Utah could afford the $280 million annual cost of managing that land if it somehow gained control, but the state would rely on oil and gas leases to pay for it.
The report warned that Utah would be at the mercy of national and international factors that can cause oil and gas prices to fluctuate, and if prices remain low, as they are now, Utah would have to ramp up drilling or find new ways to make money.
Beyond the public lands push, Niederhauser told reporters Monday that he thinks lawmakers may finally agree this year on a Medicaid expansion plan after failing to reach a deal for the past three years.
Rather than covering those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, as President Barack Obama's health care law proposes, Niederhauser said lawmakers may pay for a program to provide health insurance for a small group of the poorest residents with the most medical needs.
Republicans controlling the House backed a similar plan last year but weren't supportive of proposals backed by the Senate and governor to insure more people.
Associated Press reporter Hallie Golden contributed to this report.