In years gone by some retiring Utah House speakers have kind of just faded away, taken a step back before their term ended, even quietly cleaned out their speaker’s office.
That doesn’t appear to be how retiring House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, is going out.
Wednesday, she spoke with passion before her GOP House caucus about fighting “until Dec. 31st” over the right – the obligation – of the Utah Legislature working out an agreed upon land swap with the federal government.
In this specific case, it is over the 733,000 square acre expansion of the Defense Department’s current test range out in Utah’s west desert.
Lockhart said she personally greatly supports both Hill Air Force Base and the test range – which is one of Hill’s great advantages if there is another round of federal defense base closing actions.
But, said Lockhart, who announced her retirement from the House some months ago, by law, both state and federal, the Legislature must enforce, and must pursue, powers before state land can be turned over to federal use.
And while the Legislature may have been negligent in the past by not approving state/federal land swaps, that negligence ends now, she said.
The test range land is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.
For several years conservatives in the House have been pushing to get control of millions of acres of federal land – mostly BLM and Forest Service land – and put them under state control.
Utah public school children and their schools could reap millions, even billions, of dollars if much of the 60 percent of the state now controlled by the federal government was turned over to Utah government.
Military bases would NOT be among those lands.
But in the past Congress has acted to take over state or county lands in other states for military purposes without the state legislatures approving the deal.
In fact, that practice has been followed for years in Utah – the governor may approve of a land swap, but the Legislature doesn’t.
“We’re not going to shut down any of this” work to swap out state lands to increase the test range acreage, said Lockhart.
“We’re not going to do anything to jeopardize that happening.”
“But there are real legal and other reasons why the Legislature has to be involved.”
“We can’t be at the end” of the agreements and swap deals. The final deal can’t be presented to the Legislature as “choke it down or else.”
Former Utah House GOP member Ryan Wilcox, who resigned his seat to become a bigwig on the staff of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told the caucus that the reason legislative leaders weren’t told of the pending text range expansion earlier this summer is because the Legislature was out of session.
Negotiations started in June, said Wilcox, and it wasn’t until September that Lee’s office found out about it. Wilcox made sure he came to the Legislature’s October interim day caucus to talk about it.
Tooele County officials have known about it and been working with Defense Department officials for months.
That didn’t sit well with Rep. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, who said while it’s great that county officials knew, the three-member Tooele County Commission is “inept.”
And you can’t count on them to adequately deal with a myriad of transportation, land access and other issues expanding the test range will impact.
“We need to put a line in the sand,” said Lockhart: Utah lawmakers will be consulted, work on any agreement, and be equal partners in any and all federal land deals in the future.
She said legislative attorneys have helped her draft a letter she plans on sending to the Utah congressional delegation outlining why any land deal must be approved by the Legislature.
She anticipates that Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, will sign it with her, but if he declines she’ll send it under her name alone.
“Congress has a long history of doing this without formal state action,” said Wilcox. Congress has done it this year; it’s done it last year.
The timing reality is such that both the U.S. House and Senate won’t act on the swap before the new Congress comes in January, both Wilcox and Lockhart said.
Lockhart said she’s put together a team of three House Republicans to work with the Utah congressional delegation and any federal officials to work out an agreement.
Looking at Speaker-elect Greg Hughes, R-Draper, she said she hopes Hughes will continue that team. “That’s up to you; I’m working on it until Dec. 31.”
“Over the next six weeks we want to engage” federal officials in how the land swap will work, what kind of transportation and public land access will be allowed in the expanded test range, she said.
But perhaps even more importantly than just the test range, Lockhart is trying to stake out the Legislature’s – at least the Utah House’s – authority and territory for what many believe will be huge federal land exchanges or outright giveaways back to the state.
Finally, it seems you can’t deal with federal officials without conspiracy or bad-blood rumors.
One, apparently, is that if Utah officials don’t go along with the test range expansion, if they try to cause trouble or hold up the expansion, then the U.S. Defense Department could actually turn to Australia, with its vast outback territories, as a test range for future aircraft and ordinance testing and pilot training.
No worries, mate.
The Utah Legislature doesn’t want to stop or hinder the test range expansion. It just wants a say in how it all comes to pass.
And Lockhart ain’t going out the door before her time is up.