Utah's War Against Uncle Sam

A Monument To Big Government?

To most Utahns, Big Brother is a bully.

While the campaign for states' rights is in vogue across the country, in Utah, it's a war. From Day 1, when browbeaten Utahns were made to give up a number of Mormon traditions to achieve statehood, the state's disdain for the federal government has been a defining part of its character.

Today, everything from Internet taxation to federal benefits is tinged with anti-Washington colors here. Most recently, the Utah Legislature this month passed a bill that would allow the use of taxpayer money to legally challenge President Clinton's decision to designate a vast swath of Utah land into a national monument.

But while Utah is still a standard bearer for increased states' rights, its ongoing struggle to free itself from the government has gotten snagged. Gov. Mike Leavitt, once an outspoken advocate of states' rights, is trying to promote compromise on the monument issue and vetoed the Legislature's bill Tuesday. Meanwhile, some state lawmakers have proved unwilling to cut off the benefits that Uncle Sam bestows, meaning that Utah, like other states, has seen its sagebrush revolt become a slow burn, as statehouses inch their way toward more rights.

"The more people become excited about ... states' rights, the more concerned they become about the federal funds we go after," says Rob Bishop, a former Speaker of the House and now chairman of the state Republican Party. "It's like one of those bittersweet relationships. We've sold away some of our control over our budget destiny for free federal money, and it's going to take a lot of effort and diligence to say we are ... taking control back."

Utah is a prime example of the internal conflicts over states' rights. Heavily dependent on the federal government, Utah has fought to maintain an important state Air Force base. On the other hand, lawmakers are wary of a federal government that withholds needed highway funds based on controversial air-quality standards and permits companies to cart dangerous nuclear wastes into the state.

"People start looking at government to solve their problems and then ... realize they've given up a number of rights," says Utah House Speaker Mel Brown.

The trend away from self-sufficiency began in the 1960s and '70s, when states began accepting federal money for Great Society programs, says Mr. Bishop. But while a renewed sense of well-being nationwide in the 1980s helped spur the Republicans' desire to give limited decisionmaking authority back to the states, many states have been left with a legacy of federal obligations.

Some Utah lawmakers have tried to retake some of their rights. This session, they proposed laws to review all federal funding and its impacts, and also to allow people to opt out of Social Security as they do in Nevada. Yet none of the bills passed.

For Governor Leavitt, the answer has been to seek more autonomy in bite-size chunks. Instead of calling for a constitutional amendment to reduce the power of the federal government as he did in 1994, Leavitt is now zeroing in on specific issues. For example, he has tried to transform the issue of states' right to tax sales on the Internet into a discourse on state authority. Leavitt argues that the fabric of state authority would be undermined without the ability to tax sales. "He is taking a single issue and demonstrating how it impacts the authority and capacity of the states to do their job," says spokeswoman Vicki Varela

But Utah lawmakers have grown impatient with the strategy - and Leavitt's recent veto only riles them more. "The legislature doesn't trust the governor on this one." says a top Republican official. "They don't think he's tough enough."

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