SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and his re-election challenger, Democrat Mike Weinholtz, used their first debate to spar over a GOP-supported push to try to take control of the state’s public lands from the U.S. government.
Weinholtz said it would be irresponsible to pursue a lawsuit on the matter because it’s expected to cost up to $14 million and the Legislature’s own attorneys warned years ago that it would be unwinnable.
“We need to get serious about the fact that they (the public lands) belong to all of us and stop villainizing the federal government at every turn,” Weinholtz said.
Herbert signed a law four years ago demanding the U.S. turn over more than 30 million acres.
He said Friday that the threat of a lawsuit could force a deal that gives Utah greater control of some land, and he thinks it’s worth a shot.
“It’s not going to be easy but it might be a fight worth having just to have resolution to the question,” he told reporters after the debate Friday.
The state attorney general is weighing whether to sue, state lawmakers hired lawyers from out of state who told them that they have a credible chance at winning the lawsuit. Legislators also stashed away about $5 million or the case, something Herbert signed off on this year.
Herbert said during the debate Friday that the federal government has mismanaged the land, citing restrictions on spraying for bark beetles that he says have choked southern Utah’s lumber industry. He and other Republicans maintain that if the state had control, they could do a better job.
Weinholtz also accused Herbert of lacking leadership on a Salt Lake City suburb’s efforts to try to lure Facebook with about $240 million in tax breaks.
The deal, negotiated in secret and referred to as “Project Discus,” fell apart last month after some local leaders said the offer from West Jordan was too generous. Facebook announced this week that it would instead build a data center in New Mexico, where officials offered an even more generous incentive package.
Weinholtz called it a “horrible deal” negotiated behind closed doors that would have given away too much to a wealthy corporation at a time when the local school district has proposed a $245 million bond to raise money for new schools.
Herbert said that because state and local officials that vet tax incentive packages decided it wasn’t worth it, the process worked.
“It was not acceptable. People backed out,” Herbert said.
He has not said whether he thought the deal itself was worth the money.
Herbert, who has been in office since 2009, is expected to be the favored candidate this November in the heavily Republican state, which hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 1980. If he wins, he’ll have served as governor for about 11-and-a-half years by the time he’d leave office in January 2021, becoming one of the state’s longest serving governors.
Weinholtz, a wealthy, former CEO of a Utah medical staffing company, has never run for office before.