HELENA — The House backed a measure Thursday to give Montana the power to exercise authority over federal land — one of a number of Republican-backed bills seeking to override powers the U.S. government holds in the state.
Senate Bill 254 sponsored by Republican Sen. Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, aims to give the state eminent domain authority over federal land within its borders — an untested state action that has recently caught favor with members of some conservative legislators.
Supporters say the bill is important to give the state access to its land and to prevent the U.S. government from locking it up from development. Opponents say the measure is illegal and goes against the original agreement with the federal government that made Montana a state.
Reps. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, and Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, voted for the bill. Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, voted no.
Speaking in favor of the measure, Rep. Jonathan McNiven, R-Huntley, said the federal government owns around a third of Montana land, potentially denying it from beneficial state uses.
"Can you imagine the economic development that we could possibly have on these federal lands if there are natural resources on there?" McNiven said.
The federal government controls large swaths of forest and park areas in western Montana and other pockets in the state.
McNiven said that the measure would be one step of many for Montana to join a legal challenge of federal land rights to eventually have the right to buy land using eminent domain authority.
The proposal follows in the footsteps of one last year in Utah where that state passed a law allowing the state to claim federal lands through eminent domain, and set aside money for an anticipated legal challenge in federal court. No lawsuits have yet been filed, but officials in that state have said they are preparing a lawsuit to claim hundreds of roads.
Montana supporters emphasized the importance of asserting state sovereignty over the federal government by passing this measure, saying the government owns far too much land.
"The issue here is that the federal government cannot take property without the consent of the Legislature, to do so would be to violate the sovereignty of the state," Rep. Michael More, R-Gallatin Gateway, said.
There are a number of other measures backed by state-rights advocates currently before the Legislature.
A bill asking for federal law enforcement to check with local sheriffs before making a search or arrest was endorsed by the Legislature this week.
Opponents said the bill was a waste of time and goes against the U.S. Constitution.
Rep. Mike Menahan, D-Helena, said the state gave up its rights to federal land when it entered the union and there was no precedent for that to change.
"This is an untried legal theory," Menahan said
The bill was endorsed by the House on a 64-36 vote Thursday. The measure has already cleared the Senate.