By Bob Williams
Originally posted by Forbes on August 29, 2013
The federal government’s ownership and management of land across the country is not a new concept. In fact the government still owns one-quarter of the nation’s land, the vast majority of which is in western states, where Washington, D.C., owns more than half the land.
The cause for concern in western states comes when that government reach is too big and too intrusive, and when the federal government fails to adequately manage that land. In Utah, where 67 percent of land is federally owned, the federal government handcuffs the state by blocking access to potential revenues from natural resources, essentially swallowing the key to natural resources and economic prosperity. It’s time to give to Utah what is Utah’s: the key to unlock the riches of their own land.
The story of North Dakota stands in stark contrast. In North Dakota, the federal government gave up almost all of its land holdings. Even though the two states both have Enabling Acts on federally owned land with very similar wording, North Dakota can innovate and utilize the state’s natural resources while Utah is prevented from doing so.
Freeing once-federal land sparked North Dakota’s economic growth. North Dakota was the fastest-growing state in 2012 with a GDP growth rate of 13.4 percent. No other state in 2012 saw double-digit GDP growth. The mining industry contributed to North Dakota’s growth and North Dakota enjoyed an oil and energy boom from the lands given back to the state. During a time where jobs are a key issue in any political debate, access to the land previously owned by the feds provided the state with 18,000 new jobs.
Economic growth allowed North Dakota to collect more revenue from its oil and energy industry and use it for the betterment of its residents and communities. North Dakota saw an improvement of $1.4 billion to its infrastructure and school buildings and spending on education in the classroom exceeds the national average by $3,700 per pupil.
What we must realize is that it’s not too late for Utah. The Beehive State can experience the same economic boom as North Dakota. But Utah’s economy remains stagnant while the federal government holds control of the land. Currently, two-thirds of Utah’s energy resources are tied up on federally owned property. If the federal government gave Utah back its land, it would free the way for those doing business in the state to create more jobs and provide opportunities for the state’s residents.
For Utah to keep pace with its neighbors, it needs to find another source of revenue, and freeing more Utah land could, for example, provide the financial resources to significantly improve the state’s education system without placing a greater burden on Utah residents. Utah is below national average in per pupil funding by $3,642. If Utah gains title and access to federally owned lands within its own borders, it could generate new revenues from profits made from oil and companies that could then be used in turn to better fund items such as education.
There are innovative and responsible solutions to so many of the budgetary issues our states now find themselves in. It is time we start applying some common sense, including proper limits on federal power and allowing the states to use their natural resource, to achieve those ends.
Bob Williams is the President of State Budget Solutions and a former Washington state legislator, gubernatorial candidate and auditor with the Government Accountability Office.