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House Republicans, led by Utah's Rep. Rob Bishop, are preparing to change the way Congress calculates the cost of transferring federal lands to the states and other entities, a move that would make it easier for members of the new Congress to cede federal control of public lands to state officials.
The provision, included as part as a larger rules package the House is slated to vote on this week, has attracted relatively little attention. But it highlights the extent to which some congressional Republicans hope to change the way public land is managed now that the GOP will control both the executive and legislative branch starting Jan. 20.
Under current Congressional Budget Office accounting rules, any transfer of federal land that generates revenue for the U.S. Treasury whether through energy extraction, logging, grazing or other activities has a cost. If lawmakers wanted to give land-generating receipts to a given state, local government or tribe, they would have to account for that loss in expected cash flow. If the federal government conveys land where there is no economic activity, such as wilderness, there is no estimated cost associated with it.
But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bishop, who backs the idea of providing state and local officials with greater control over federal land, has authored language in the new rules package saying any such transfers "shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending or increasing outlays."
Rep. Raul Grijalva, Ariz., the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter Tuesday to fellow Democrats urging them to oppose the rules package on the basis of that proposal.
"The House Republican plan to give away America's public lands for free is outrageous and absurd," Grijalva said in a statement. "This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people."
Bishop's staff did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
While the official GOP platform endorses the idea of transferring federal land to the states, neither President-elect Trump nor Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., his pick to head the Interior Department, embrace that approach.
Zinke quit the GOP platform writing committee this summer over the issue, and Trump expressed his opposition to the concept a year ago in an interview with Field & Stream magazine.
While the overall rules package was initially slated to be voted on Tuesday afternoon, controversy over a different provision which would have eliminated an independent congressional ethics office has delayed consideration of the 43-page measure.