Utah education: The wrong culprit
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill demanding that the federal government transfer all federal lands to the state — with a few exceptions, such as national parks and designated wilderness areas.

If this misguided effort were successful, Utahns could one day see "No Trespassing" signs or the scars of mineral development on some of their favorite public lands.

None of the arguments for this brazen attack holds water on closer examination. Even the Legislature's own lawyers dubbed the escapade almost certainly unconstitutional.

Despite the claims of HB148's Republican sponsor, Rep. Ken Ivory, Utah was never "promised" at statehood that the federal government would sell all land within the state's borders.

In fact, the Utah Constitution says in no uncertain terms that we "forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries hereof."

Utah's Enabling Act, the legislation which led to Utah's birth as a state, makes clear that this was part of our bargain for joining the Union. As it turns out, there was a promise at statehood but it was from us, and we committed that we would never do what HB148 is now attempting.

The bill's supporters are also wrong to claim that having public lands prevents us from funding our schools by overly limiting our tax base.

They ignore the fact that while Utah does have a lot of federal land, we are a big state with a relatively small population. In fact, more than half of all states have less private and state land per person but manage to provide more funding for public education than Utah.

Nationwide there is no correlation between states' per-pupil funding and the availability of non-federal land within their borders. States with a small base of private and state lands are still able to fund their schools. For example, Rhode Island has roughly one-tenth the amount of non-federal land per capita that Utah has, yet it manages to more than double Utah's per-pupil funding.

Having a lot of federal land does not have to hurt either. Alaska has more acres of federal land than any other state and yet it easily doubles Utah's per-pupil funds. Nevada has a higher percentage of land owned by the federal government than Utah and yet it provides more per student.

Utah's dead-last ranking among states in money per pupil is really about choices.

Recently, Headwaters Economics released a report which found that in fiscal year 2011, Utah had the lowest effective tax rate on oil and natural gas activity of any western energy-producing state. Similarly perplexing is the fact that Utah has no severance tax on coal. Our neighbor Wyoming has a coal severance tax rate of between 3.75 percent and 7 percent.

The Legislature has decided to give these industries an easy pass while our public schools remain underfunded.

Some say the public has nothing to fear by losing these lands to the state. However, if Utah is not planning to drill, mine, or sell these lands off, how will it cover the current federal management budget for these lands — hundreds of millions each year — and still drastically increase revenues for public schools?

Remember, this is the same state that denied anglers access to streams; recently filed 45,000 miles of road claims on private and public lands, including national parks and wilderness areas, and cannot even manage to fund state parks.

It is time for Utah's legislators to get serious about funding public education. HB148 is neither serious nor likely to increase education funding.

David Garbett is a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. He attended Utah public schools from elementary to graduate school.