Utah is regularly acknowledged as one of the best managed states and more financially responsible than the federal government that borrows 40 cents for every dollar it spends. However, nearly 40 cents of every dollar Utah spends comes from this fiscally unsustainable federal government. Ignoring this truth may be as painful as ignoring the law of gravity, and the stopping point is likely to be as abrupt and painful as it is for those who think falling is flying.
How can Utah lessen its reliance on the federal government while meeting its ever increasing spending needs for schools, roads and services? Is there a solution big enough to close a $2 billion annual education-funding gap and to put our state on the path to economic self-reliance? Answers to these questions lie in channeling Utahns' native resourcefulness to unleash and deploy our state's abundant natural resources responsibly. For those who worry about environmental casualties, state environmental regulators can better address and monitor local environmental concerns than far away federal bureaucrats.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently testified to Congress that there is more recoverable oil in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming than all the rest of the world combined. The problem is that most of this oil (and other abundant resources) is locked up in federally controlled lands. If these lands were under more certain state control, instead of the ever-changing federal whims, businesses could translate this certainty into business plans, investments in long term leases and local jobs. This, in turn, would lead to increased revenues and greater economic self-reliance for these states.
Earlier this year, the Utah legislature enacted The Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act (HB148). This law compels the state to work for the transfer of nearly 70 percent of the federal lands located in Utah locked up under federal control to Utah. To date, however, the state has done little to cause this transfer.
While the path to transferring public lands back to the states may be difficult, it has been done before. In Illinois, Missouri, Louisiana and several other former "western frontier states," the federal government controlled nearly 90 percent of their public lands for decades. With a little push from these states, the federal government honored the statehood promises in their enabling acts to dispose of their public lands. Today, states east of Colorado have less than 5 percent federally controlled lands while Utah has more than 64 percent federally controlled lands.
The promises fulfilled to those states are the same promises that exist in Utah's statehood enabling act. It is time for Utah's leaders to push the federal government to keep its promises to Utah. If Utah continues to rely on the precarious funds of the federal government for nearly 40 percent of its budget, Utah will likely face a very hard economic landing.
State, local and community leaders should heed the counsel of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus." Utah's leaders should mold the consensus among other western states to do the same thing done by earlier western frontier states. The federal government's promises to Utah are the same as those to states where the federal government successfully disposed of public lands. Public land transfer has been done before and should be done again. Utah can secure the rights and benefits of our lands and resources and move toward economic self-reliance.
Jonathan E. Johnson III
Salt Lake City