If only Washington, D.C., could be more like Utah.
At times stretching a bit as they patted each other on their backs, Utah lawmakers on Wednesday afternoon passed three “emergency” bills that funded the five major national parks in Southern Utah and authorized state aid to other needed federal programs.
The $9 million – with $1.7 million guaranteed to be spent – was allocated to pay for national park personnel to keep the parks open until at least through November, and fund several other federal programs as needed.
Of course, all that will be unnecessary, as GOP legislative leaders admitted, if Congress gets its act together and opens the federal government immediately.
If not, at least Utah should reap around $1.5 million in taxes otherwise lost if the parks remained closed.
In an open House GOP caucus held just before the afternoon special session began, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, and Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, told their members that not only are other states looking at how Utah has reacted quickly to take over needed federal services, but “globally” tourists and business leaders are seeing that Utah can be counted on doing what is necessary to keep federal facilities operating, even when Congress won’t.
Besides keeping the national parks open, bills were also passed that pays for various furloughed state workers, required by the federal government shutdown, health care benefits, holidays and other exemptions.
State education officials were also given the power to keep school lunch programs going.
While GOP Senate and House leaders worked well over the last week to come up with some tricky solutions – for example, legislative attorneys had to find a legal way around a state law that says Utah will give no money to the federal government – UtahPolicy was told that House leaders demanded that state monies be “leaked” out as needed to federal parks.
Senate leaders were content to make the funds transfers more cleanly – just appropriate a lump sum and then get the monies back into their proper state accounts later.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the Senate’s budget chair, said he’s glad that the main bill contains language requiring specific accounting of the $165,000 a day Utah is spending to keep the national parks open.
Lockhart and Dee told their caucus that plans are now being developed to not only keep national parks open, should it again become necessary, but deal with other problems in a proactive measure if the federal government – (will this never end?) – close in January or February, the next budget crisis deadline members of Congress set for themselves in budget agreements expected to be reached late Wednesday or early Thursday.
To cover the operating costs of the southern Utah national parks, lawmakers took the $9 million out of what is called the “sovereign lands account,” which has $24 million in it.
That money is normally used to aid the management of lands given to Utah by the federal government years ago. It is spent on wildfire control and, perhaps, will be needed for improvements around the Great Salt Lake, said House Majority Assistant Whip Don Ipson, R-St. George.
House Republicans bantered about for some time in their caucus how best to ensure that those monies find their way back into the sovereign account in a full and timely manner.
But promises have been made that that account will be replenished, leaders said.
Ipson said the southern Utah national parks are not only a physical treasure, but a cash one, too.
Action had to be taken to ensure that they stay open, not just through October’s federal shutdown, but for the rest of the year and into 2014, said Ipson.
“These parks are global” in drawing visitors, he said. Asians and Europeans are now booking travel in Utah and the American West.
“We need to say that Utah is open today and next year,” said Ipson. Otherwise, Utah will be making “a tragic mistake in perpetual planning.”
Ipson admitted to House colleagues that there is no binding promise by the federal executives that whatever Utah spends will be repaid. Only Congress can do that, although bill files have been opened in the U.S. Senate with that intent.
Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, noted that already in state law is a provision where Utah can withhold monies collected by the state owed to the federal government.
And Christensen said he fully expects that if Congress won’t reimburse Utah, state revenue officials will just withhold that amount in the future.
The parks funding bill was amended in the Utah Senate to include the Bear River bird refuge, where hunters want to take aim at birds during the October hunt. It now can be opened as well.
Said Dee: “If someone defaults on (keeping a national park open), we are there.”
But, he added, if Utah has to step up again to keep the parks open, then there will be agreements sought with the feds about who is being employed in the national parks, how the parks are operated and such.
“This is a federal crisis. I don’t care which party you belong to. We are the ones saying – here, I’m going to help you fix this. As others run away, whether in D.C. or elsewhere. We are running in and fix a problem,” Dee added.
Three million school lunches have been served since the federal shutdown, including at childcare centers, at-risk after school meals and such, said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake.
“It is a national disaster. Shutdowns have consequences. State Office of Education had the money” to cover the lunches, said Briscoe. HB2002 gives flexibility for the State Office of Education to cover these meals, and he thanked Dee and others for bringing it forward.
Lawmakers almost got through the special session without hard partisan political speeches. Almost.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said the federal government was guilty of “tyranny” and “Gestapo tactics” in dealing with tourists in some shutdown parks.
Ivory said Utahns are under attack from the federal government on several levels and in many areas.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, then got up to chastise Ivory’s comments. King said it is galling to have to listen to Ivory attack the federal government when his party were the ones who shutdown the government.
King said Utah’s GOP delegation voted time and again on bills that resulted in the shutdown. He quoted a Standards and Poor’s’ study which estimates the shutdown cost Americans $24 billion – twice the annual budget of Utah.
Officially, the monies and powers put forward in the special session Wednesday run out Dec. 2.
That won’t be needed as Congress voted to re-open the federal government Wednesday evening.
Lockhart, who has already announced she will retire from the House and 2014 will be her last legislative session, said Utahns and state officials had better get used to this.
“This is what we have to deal with this – 30 percent of our (state) budget” is federal money. And when Congress doesn’t act “our people are hurting. This is going to happen over and over again, right?
“What else besides the parks” will Utah be expected to pay for ahead? She asked.