SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday it would be reckless to file a longshot lawsuit now to try and force the federal government to give up control of more than 30 million acres of public land - defending his actions against criticism from GOP challenger Jonathan Johnson.
The two Republicans sparred over how best to combat what they both deem overreaching federal oversight on lands that account for two-thirds of Utah during a key debate that was staged less than two weeks before party delegates will choose the Republican candidate at the state convention.
Johnson, chairman of the board at Overstock.com, criticized Herbert for not pulling the trigger on a lawsuit and vowed to bring the legal challenge quickly if he becomes governor. He said increasingly restrictive federal management of the lands cripples rural Utah economies.
Herbert signed a law in 2012 demanding the federal government hand over the lands to Utah by the end of 2014. When that deadline passed with no action, as expected, Utah legislators began weighing a possible lawsuit.
Lawmakers set aside $4.5 million this year for the suit after a team of constitutional lawyers recommended the state take on the lawsuit, even while warning it could cost up to $14 million and that it would be far from a sure victory.
“While we have brought some action to try and get control of the land, it hasn’t been enough,” Johnson said.
Herbert countered he has been advised by counsel not to sue until a Republican is president. He said he also is tracking a legislative proposal unveiled this year by two members of Utah’s congressional delegation that calls for protecting 4 million acres of public land in Utah in exchange for freeing up more than 1 million acres for recreation and oil and gas development.
“It would be counterproductive and probably reckless if we filed a lawsuit to try and take these lands over now,” said Herbert, governor since 2009. “We will have a national monument by next Friday if we filed that litigation today.”
Johnson said after the debate he thinks other Western states would help pay for a lawsuit, which would give Utah’s congressional delegation much-needed leverage.
State Democrats and a long list of environmental groups oppose Utah’s plan to seize control of the lands. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has said she considers Utah’s push a misguided effort that doesn’t take into account benefits or costs of managing public lands.
A 2014 study by three state universities found that Utah could afford the $280 million annual cost of managing that land if it somehow gained control, but the state would rely on oil and gas leases to pay for it.
The report warned that Utah would be at the mercy of national and international factors that can cause oil and gas prices to fluctuate, and if prices remain low, as they are now, Utah would have to ramp up drilling or find new ways to make money.
Attacking Herbert on federal lands is one of Johnson’s main strategies in his bid to outflank Herbert to win delegates at the April 23 convention. Johnson questioned Herbert’s leadership throughout the debate.
“Gov. Herbert points to his record, which is good in some respects, and says ‘Why risk it?’” Johnson said. “To which I respond, ‘Don’t settle. Utah can do it better.’”
Herbert touted the state’s strong economy and solid education system as reasons he deserves to be re-elected. He called himself a conservative in principle who uses a moderate tone to unite people.
“The results we can see,” Herbert said. “Let’s finish what we started.”
Herbert has the advantage of incumbency and had twice as much money in his campaign coffers through the end of 2015.
He landed an endorsement this month from Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz even though Johnson hosted a rally for the Texas senator before Utah’s caucuses last month.
Herbert has gathered signatures to earn a place on the ballot for a June 28 primary in case he loses at convention, taking advantage of a method being used this year for the first time as a way for candidates to circumvent Utah’s caucus and convention system.
Johnson considered doing the same, but opted not to after he said he heard from rural residents about the importance of the convention.
On the Democratic side, Michael Weinholtz, the former CEO of a Utah medical staffing company, is competing against Vaughn Cook, former Utah County Democratic Party chairman and CEO of a medical technology company.
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