Jun 12 2020
When kids ask their parents for a dog, most parents will only agree to buy the dog if the children promise to take care of it.
But what if, as often happens, the parents get the dog but the children then fail to take care of it? Of course, the parents will step in and take care of the animal as best they can while also reminding the children to do their part as often as possible.
But what if the children not only continue to fail to take care of the first dog they own, but also ask for a new dog on top of the one they already are not taking care of? No responsible parent would ever agree to that would they?
And it would be absolutely crazy if the parents then agreed to not only buy their irresponsible children a new dog, but then promised to buy them a new dog every year regardless of whether or not the existing dogs were being cared for, right?
Well that is exactly what Congress did this week with the Great American Outdoors Act. The federal government already owns more than 640 million acres of land throughout the United States. This is a total larger than the entire areas of France, Germany, Poland, Italy, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the Netherlands combined.
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, there are more than $19.38 billion dollars worth of neglected maintenance projects on these existing federal land including significant backlogs at Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Zions National Parks.
These projects include everything from roads and buildings to trails, bridges, and water systems. When these features are ill-kept, it makes it harder for Americans to enjoy the outdoors, and it also makes wildfires and other natural disasters more likely to occur and harder to maintain.
The Great American Outdoors Act does spend over $10 billion addressing this maintenance backlog, but then it turns right around and spends $900 million mostly acquiring new federal lands not just this year, but every year for eternity.
And while the money for buying new land in the bill is infinite, the resources for maintaining the newly acquired lands is not. The existing maintenance backlog will only grow, meaning more neglected infrastructure and worse wildfires. This bill is a natural disaster waiting to happen.
Worse, the more land the federal government buys, the smaller the tax base for our rural Utah counties. The Payment in Lieu of Taxes program was supposed to address this disparity by compensating counties and local communities for the loss of property taxes. But PILT payments have not adequately compensated rural communities. A Utah legislative commission recently found that Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands both in Utah cities and within one mile of Utah municipal boundaries should have delivered the state $534 million in annual property taxes. Instead, PILT payments to Utah totaled just $41 million … just 7.7% of the potential gain from property taxes.
We could have voted on amendments to address these problems with the Great American Outdoors Act.
One of my amendments would require state legislative approval for any land acquisition proposed in that state, so that land acquisition would be something Washington does with the states rather than to the states.
Another of my amendments would require the federal government to dispose of current federal lands before acquiring any new ones – forcing land agencies to exercise fiscal responsibility and prioritize which lands they keep under their control.
I’ve also got a number of amendments that would reform the NEPA process to help address the maintenance backlog on neglected land Washington already owns.
And finally, I have an amendment to support Utah’s interests under the Antiquities Act. Right now, other states are protected from unilateral land grabs by the federal government for designation of national monuments; and because 28% of the national monument acreage designated in the 50 states over the last twenty-five years has been in Utah, my state is due the same kind of protections that Wyoming and Alaska already enjoy.
These amendments were all written and filed. The Senate was literally doing nothing else. We could have easily debated and voted on each of these amendments. The floor was empty all day.
But instead not a single amendment was allowed to be debated or voted on. The Senate was created to be the place – the one place in our constitutional framework – where our diverse, divided nation could come together, air our disagreements, and find common ground.
The only reason the United States Senate was given the powers we have, by the Founders and by our constituents, is to facilitate those vital conversations. This isn’t the New York Times op-ed page. We’re not supposed to be afraid of debate here. But right now, we are abusing our constitutional privilege. We are willfully taking the powers the American people have given us to deny them their right to a diverse, deliberative, transparent lawmaking process. And for no other purpose than our own convenience.
This week was a complete failure of policy and process in the United States Senate. We must change how business is done in the Senate, or change will be forced on us.