Legislative Democrats Almost Block State From Hiring Attorney to Sue Feds Over Public Lands

Utah Democratic legislative leaders almost had some power Tuesday.

Almost.

Not enough Republicans showed up to the final 2014 meeting of the Legislative Management Committee, and Democrats had the votes to decide issues on the agenda.

In fact, when the first vote was called for on a controversial issue – whether to spend Lord-knows how much money on outside attorneys in suing the federal government over 31 million acres of land in the state – Democrats actually blocked giving a GOP-controlled commission the OK to go forward with the attorney hiring.

But Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, relented – after House Speaker Becky Lockhart asked rhetorically: “How long do you want to stay here?”

After complaining about the proposed hiring, Mayne switched her vote and then left the meeting.

Lockhart, who retires from the House end of this month, wasn’t kidding.

She was willing to wait, and wait, until the Democrats on the management committee did what Republicans wanted – even though the Republicans didn’t have the majority Tuesday.

After Mayne switched her vote, the motion to go out for a Request For Proposal on the outside attorneys passed in the Senate and tied in the House, and so passed under joint legislative rules.

Incoming House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who in his current post of House majority whip is a member of Legislative Management, said the newly-elected leadership in the House and Senate, both parties, would next year have a chance to approve the outside attorneys.

At some point the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands would have to come to the whole Legislature to get approval to pay whomever is finally selected to give the commission legal advice.

And who those outside attorneys may be is a political act to watch.

Will they be philosophically aligned with some of the arch conservative, constitutionalist GOP legislators on the commission?

Will they be somehow connected to other political organizations/ideals commission members hold?

It’s all too much for Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake, one of only two Democrats who sit on the public lands commission.

Briscoe, a member of Legislative Management as the House minority caucus manager, voted against Tuesday’s RFP motion, as he did at a commission meeting last week.

Briscoe quietly lobbied other Democratic LM members Tuesday before the meeting started to vote against approving the outside attorney RFP.

And he had plenty of time to do so.

Lockhart, committee co-chair, showed up 45 minutes late from the agendaed 10 a.m. start time. Lockhart apologized, but at least she showed up.

Missing were most of the other GOP leaders who make up the majority on the management committee.

Rarely do Democrats get to decide anything in the Utah Legislature.

Democrats lost three seats in the 2014 elections, and won one from the Republicans in the 75-member House.

Come January House Democrats will be at their lowest number (12) in recent history.

At only five members, Senate Democrats tied their record low numbers set in the mid-1980s.

And while the Democrats’ revolt lasted only a few minutes Tuesday, it could have repercussions later.

As in most legislative bodies, standing, budget and special committee make-up in the Utah Legislature reflects the partisan numbers in the House and Senate.

Legislative Management and the Ethics committees are the exceptions – those memberships are split 50-50 with the majority party having two more votes through the chair and vice-chair.

Several years ago there was a move coming from some Republicans to change that: Under the proposal Legislative Management and Ethics membership would be lopsided, reflecting the partisan numbers in each body.

But GOP leaders decided not to punish the minority Democrats.

If Democrats on Tuesday had stayed united, and made Legislative Management reject (at least for now) the commission’s RFP for outside attorneys, Republicans in the 2015 Legislature may have responded, and stripped out the Democratic numbers from those two committees.

In any case, Briscoe said he’s extremely uncomfortable in writing a financial blank check to the lands commission for spending on outside attorneys.

“I’ve been told (any lawsuit against the federal government) could take 10 years,” said Briscoe, who moves up in House Democratic leadership come the first of the year.

“This RFP is open-ended, and we could spend who knows how much money” on the commission attorneys, said Briscoe.

The attorneys would not actually sue the federal government – that would be the job of GOP Attorney General Sean Reyes.

Briscoe asked why the Legislature’s own attorneys couldn’t advise the commission, and save all this money.

Legislative General Counsel John Fellows said the commission attorneys would have certain expertise, and like the outside counsel hired by a special investigative House committee that looked into former AG John Swallow, the commission’s outside counsel would prepare legal arguments and take on other studies.

At the proper time, the commission’s outside attorneys would counsel with Reyes’ staff to actually bring the lawsuit(s).

Previous Legislatures, with some Democrats agreeing, have set aside more than $2 million to pay for lawsuits, or other actions, in an attempt to get the federal government to give control of 31 million acres to the state.

Basically, Utah wants all the Bureau of Land Management and national forest service land in the state, along with the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

National parks, monuments, military bases, Indian reservations and other federal lands would stay under federal control.

A recent study said that Utah could gain $1 billion a year within a few years if it gets control of those lands, the profits determined mainly by the price of oil and natural gas.

If royalties from those extractions fall, however, the state could end up with revenue shortfalls of $100 million a year, the report said.