SALT LAKE CITY – Fed up with federal ownership of more than half the land in Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert on Saturday authorized the use of eminent domain to take some of the U.S. government’s most valuable parcels.
Herbert signed a pair of bills into law that supporters hope will trigger a flood of similar legislation throughout the West, where lawmakers contend federal ownership restricts economic development in an energy-rich part of the country. Governments use eminent domain to take private property for public use.
The goal is to spark a U.S. Supreme Court battle that legislators’ own attorneys acknowledge has little chance of success.
But Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and other Republicans say the case is still worth fighting, since the state could reap millions of dollars for state schools each year if it wins.
More than 60 percent of Utah is owned by the U.S. government, and policymakers here have long complained that federal ownership hinders their ability to generate tax revenue and adequately fund public schools.
Utah spends less per student than any other state and has the nation’s largest class sizes. Under the measure Herbert has approved, the state will set aside $3 million to defend the law.
Lawmakers recently cut education funding by $10 million and raised taxes on cigarettes $1 a pack.
Initially, the state would target three areas, including the Kaiparowits plateau in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, home to large coal reserves.