The Utah Legislature will hire three of the most respected and expensive local lobbyists to work on public land issues, but oddly enough the three won’t be able actually to lobby – since it is illegal under Utah law for the state to use taxpayer dollars to lobby.
Doug Foxley and Frank Pignanelli are well-known on Utah's Capitol Hill. They, along with former Utah Democratic senator Blaze Wharton, are part of the Davillier Law Group, a specially-grouped New Orleans legal/public relations team soon to be on an up to $2 million contract accepted Tuesday by the state Stewardship of Public Lands Commission.
Later in the day, the Legislative Management Committee also approved the new contract.
In addition, a group called the Strata Policy, including Randy Simmons and Ryan Yonk (Utah State University professors), and some of their students, will also do PR for the commission, including putting out YouTube videos telling the story of why Utah needs to take control of BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands in the state.
Foxley and Pignanelli, who is a former Democratic minority leader in the Utah House, were some of the first freelance lobbyists to put together impressive client lists in the late 1990s.
You can see the client list of Pignanelli, who also ran for Salt Lake mayor several years ago, here.
In recent years Wharton, who at one time was the youngest Utah House member in state history, has concentrated on Washington, D.C., lobbying. His Utah lobbying list is here.
The GOP-controlled Legislature has given the stewardship commission the authority to sue the federal government and/or convince Congress to turn over the millions of acres of now federally-controlled land to state control.
Attorney General Sean Reyes has told the commission it is not yet the time to seek a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
But it is also clear Congress is not ready to act on turning over to western federal land states the millions of acres in their areas.
Several recent studies show Utah state government could afford – could actually make money – if the state were to get control of the federal lands in the state.
But the economic feasibility study concludes that basically the price of pumping oil and natural gas on those federal lands would have to be above current low oil prices for the state to break even – or even make cash – on the transfer.
The stewardship commission – the legislative make-up is here — is charged with coming up with a legal and political/PR policy to 1) win court battles to get the land and 2) develop educational/public relation strategies to convince Utahns, those in Congress, and western and eastern political leaders that giving Utah its federal lands is a good deal for all concerned.
No easy task on any fronts.
Over several legislative sessions, lawmakers have put one-time tax surpluses into a special stewardship fund – now around $2 million.
Legislative Attorney Thomas Vaughn – who worked on the legislature’s special prosecution team looking into nefarious dealings of former AG John Swallow – briefed the stewardship committee Tuesday on the new RFP on the federal lands contract.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, said his constituents are clearly against a federal lands transfer.
Referring to a state audit on a sage grouse consultant’s work, Dabakis said he wants to make sure these new legislative consultants do “transparent” and valuable work.
According to the stewardship’s orders from the Legislature, only the two GOP co-chairs of the commission, Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, and Rep. Kevin Stratton, R-Oren, must be briefed on the daily workings of the two consultant teams.
Dabakis wants to see more details of the work, as does Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake.
Both the co-chairs promised that commission members will be kept up to speed on what the legal and PR teams will be doing, their billings and work documents.
The legal team’s work is pretty clearly defined: Develop a strategy to sue the federal government successfully if it comes to that.
Some of that work will be private – as the Legislature doesn’t want to tip its hand legally to its perceived opponents, like various public land/wilderness groups that don’t want western states to get control of federal lands.
The public relations work is more nebulous, with Vaughn at times having a difficult time saying exactly what Foxley-Pignanell-Wharton and the Strata Group will be doing.
“That (work) will be up to the co-chairs, and the commission,” said Vaughn.
Actually, said Stratton, the commission’s work depends on detailing what Utahns want to do concerning the state getting the federal lands, and “educating” various individuals and groups on why and how it will be a benefit to the state to do so.
Part of that will be a public relations campaign, both inside and outside of the state. That will include USU students – working for Strata — abilities to use social media, like YouTube, to get out to the public the benefits of state control of federal lands.
Several members of the commission said they are worried that having both D and Strata doing PR work could lead to double efforts on the same fronts, or the PR people tripping “over each others toes.”
But Hinkins and Stratton said that won’t happen.
Anyway, said Vaughn – who will now draw up the specific contracts for both groups to sign – the Legislature can cancel either of the group’s contracts at any time.
At one point in the discussion, commission member Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said he had just seen the RFP recommendation.
“It is a nice, one paragraph opinion, you know, but you are putting a blindfold on me and asking me to vote,” he said.
But as the hours long discussion went on, Jenkins came around and ultimately voted for the consultants – a motion that passed unanimously, even though in the voice vote Dabakis did not vote but remained silent.
The RFP and the selection committee’s rankings are a private document, said Vaughn, and asked for commission members to return those handouts to him after the commission meeting.
However, the consulting contracts will be public after they are signed and implemented, he added.
Stratton said, “There is a real sensitivity among this commission, we need to be very, very cautious and wise in the use of these public monies. We intend to go beyond (transparencies) in this stewardship.”
Just to be clear that USU students won’t be doing classwork, or any university funds will be used, in the Strata contract, said Vaughn, the group is a 501C3 non-profit entity, set up by several USU professors, to do consulting on public lands and public policy issues.
And students will be paid by Strata, and not USU.
Those involved in the contracts – which could reach upwards of $2 million – are: