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Democrats Want More Transparency In Lands Fights

Judy Fahys/KUER
Many lawmakers and county officials support state spending for various lands-control fights with the federal government. Democratic leaders in the State Legislature are calling for more accountability, especially when it comes to money.

Utah lawmakers created the Constitutional Defense Council years ago to coordinate various battles with the federal government over issues like backcountry roads, a lands-transfer, and imperiled species like wolves and sage grouse.

They’ve appropriated millions of dollars already, but this year Democrats in the State Legislature are pushing to know more about how public money’s being spent in fighting the federal government over public lands.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, raised the issue last Monday at the council’s most recent meeting.

“What I want to make sure that we’re focused on and we consider and talk about, specifically, is the standards and criteria for what’s reimburse-able and what’s not.”

Lawmakers recently budgeted over $7 million for the lands fights – for lobbying, legal fees and reimbursing counties for their expenses. When Garfield County requested reimbursement for over $60,000 last Monday, it triggered a discussion on how loosely the council’s been run so far.

“There needs to be some coordination with the office before you go up and rack up a whole bunch of bills and then come and say, ‘Hey, we did this for you.’ I understand that,” said Rep. Mike Noel, a Kanab Republican and member of the UCDC.

An attorney for the council said guidelines are in the works.

Meanwhile, Democrats asked separately last month for billing details from attorneys who’ve invoiced the state more than $600,000 for legal work on forcing the federal government to surrender 30 million acres to the state. The Democratic legislators have asked the Utah Bar to look into transparency regarding the estimated $14 million case.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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