- Associated Press - Friday, February 24, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah lawmakers backed a resolution on Friday urging the state to be prepared to sue the U.S. government if Washington leaders don’t start handing over federal land to the state.

Members of a House natural resources committee approved the proposal, despite concern from one lawmaker that it could be costly, hurt the environment and that a lawsuit would not be successful.

“Our attorneys in the legislature are clear, they think this is unconstitutional,” said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City. “They do not believe we will win this lawsuit.”

The proposal previously included stricter language, stipulating that if Congress or the White House do not make major moves to hand over control of public lands by December, then the state should appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Changes to the now-softened proposal included removing the December deadline.

“What we’re saying is we do not support today, at this point in time proceeding with the litigation,” said bill sponsor Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem. “What we support is a legislative process that we can engage in to resolve this problem.”

Stratton said he made changes because he thinks the Republican-controlled Congress and White House may be willing to hand over the land to Utah.

His proposal comes on the heels of a resolution lawmakers passed this month urging President Donald Trump to repeal the newly-named Bears Ears National Monument. Organizers of the lucrative Outdoor Retailer show said recently that it was the final straw, capping years of Utah policies that they said jeopardized the preservation of public lands. They announced that their expo, bringing about $45 million in direct spending to the state each year, would be leaving Utah for a location that matches their values.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s office said in a statement earlier this week that the office has not reviewed Stratton’s most recent version of the resolution, but the governor will not sign anything that lays out a specific date for filing a lawsuit. Herbert, a Republican, has said in the past that he sees a lawsuit as one possible path to get Utah more control, but he’d prefer to see action in Congress.

Utah has floated the idea of filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government to gain control of federal lands since 2012, when Herbert and the Legislature passed a law demanding control of about 30 million acres.

The state has about $4.5 million set aside for a potential lawsuit. Stratton said it also has the option of using about $1 million of leftover funds from a commission for the stewardship of public lands, which had about $2 million to hire a law firm to do an analysis on this issue.

A team of lawyers hired by the Legislature to draft potential legal arguments said the state could make a credible argument, but it’s not a slam dunk and could cost up to $14 million.

Chase Thomas, of the left-leaning group Alliance for a Better Utah, said in a statement that the resolution encourages “wasting $14 million on an unwinnable lawsuit that could otherwise go to K-12 education.”

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