SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A legal consulting team hired by the state told lawmakers this week that they've devised a credible way to sue the federal government to get the state control over public lands, but Gov. Gary Herbert said the potential $14 million price tag is making some state officials pause.
"There is a good, sound case here," attorney John Howard told lawmakers, according to The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1QLD3wb). "It's a strong, arguable case with constitutional principles and rooted in constitutional law."
Supporters of the state's push to seize management of federal lands that make up two-thirds of the land in Utah say the state's legal claim lies in the Utah Enabling Act, which led to Utah's statehood.
But critics have disputed that argument, and the Legislature's own attorneys warned in 2012 that the demand and any attempt to enforce it would likely be found unconstitutional.
Howard and the rest of the consulting team last month recommended a Republican-dominated commission of Utah legislators to urge the governor and attorney general to take on the lawsuit, even while warning it could cost up to $14 million, take years to play out in the courts and saying it would be far from a sure victory.
Herbert, a Republican, said Thursday he's not against a legal challenge but said the potential cost is forcing him to pause before signing off.
"You kind of have to handicap, we're going to spend $14 million and our chances of success are what?" Herbert said.
Herbert said he'd be more open or enthusiastic about the lawsuit if other states joined Utah and helped share the cost. He said discussions to make that happen are underway as intermountain states in the Western Governor's Association are discussing the legal issues.
The potential lawsuit is the latest sign that Utah's conservative leadership remains committed to moving forward with what many consider a longshot attempt to assert state powers.
Utah passed a law in 2012 demanding the federal government hand over the lands by the end of 2014. When that deadline quietly passed, Utah legislators began weighing a possible lawsuit. Supporters of the plan argue that the state would be better managers of the land and that local control would allow Utah to make money from taxes and development rights on those acres.
Herbert has said in the past that he sees a lawsuit as a fallback plan. On Wednesday in his annual State of the State speech, he instead praised a plan from U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz that would give Utah more control and seeks guarantees that the president won't declare new national monuments in parts of the state. Bishop and Chaffetz say they'll introduce it Congress soon.
House Minority Leader Brian King, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, is among vocal critics of the plan and price. He the lawsuit would only make lawyers rich while wasting taxpayer money for a lawsuit doomed to fail.
But Rep. Mel Brown, a Republican from Coalville, said the lawsuit is worth the price.
"What kind of a price can you put on freedom and self-determination," Brown said, according to the Tribune. "Those who oppose it will trivialize it based on cost. In my mind, it doesn't mean a thing compared to the outcome."
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com