By Rose Egelhoff and Nathaniel Smith • The Times-Independent
Joint meeting: The economy
It was a busy day Monday for Congressman John Curtis. A sunrise hike at Delicate Arch with Superintendent Kate Cannon, a ride-along with Moab Police Chief Jim Winder, and visits with USU and Mayor Emily Niehaus occupied the first part of the day. Curtis also visited the Children’s Justice Center and held a meeting on economic development with the Moab City and Grand County councils before a well-attended town hall meeting at Star Hall.
The joint meeting of the city and county councils addressed a variety of issues, most of which tied back to economic development. They discussed the federal Essential Air Service program that subsidizes Canyonlands Field commercial flights. They also talked broadly about economic development and ways to diversify Moab’s tourism-based economy, and funding for the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action project.
In his opening remarks, Curtis described his work so far in Congress. He touted the successful passage of his “fish bill,” which allowed river users—farmers, dam-builders and others—to do native fish species restoration work as part of their required mitigation projects. He described the passage of a package of bills addressing opioid abuse.
Two public lands bills came up: Curtis’ Bears Ears bill and his Emery County Public Lands Management Act. “Three weeks after President Trump came and announced the rescission … I jumped in and tried to solve it with legislation,” Curtis said of Bears Ears. “It’s thick with distrust and problems. The bill that we put in, we felt like it was a good bill but to be honest, we’re having a very difficult time bringing the very diverse groups together to try to find a resolution down there.”
Curtis said the outlook is rosier for the Emery County Public Lands Management Act, which protects parts of the San Rafael Swell. “We’re very optimistic that we can actually pass a bill there,” he said, citing broad support for the bill.
Curtis is also involved in the Speed Act, a bill that he said would reconcile the federal and state drilling permitting process. “If you try to get a permit for drilling on public lands owned by the federal government, the process would take about 180 days. The same process with the state is about a 30- to a 90-day process. We’re trying to bring the regulations in line, not so that we short-cut any regulations but that we expedite where the appropriate safeguards are,” Curtis said.
After the congressman finished speaking, the meeting changed to a discussion. Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine described his office’s work. Curtis emphasized the importance of supporting local entrepreneurs and said he was working on a Carbon County job fair to connect less employed areas of the state with areas like Moab, where unemployment is low and businesses have difficulty finding employees.
“In our community housing is economic development. It’s probably the limiting factor to our ability to diversify our economy and also to support existing businesses and their growth … We use a lot of federal housing dollars to develop housing,” Levine said, adding that the county was keeping an eye on the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget, the source of much federal money for housing.
In response, Curtis emphasized the importance of cooperation between different levels of government. “We can provide the funding but if we don’t have good zoning, it doesn’t cross the finish line. I would move for this to be a project for all of us to stay focused on. It seems like Moab and housing crisis, the two words are tied together … Let’s work together,” Curtis said.
Then Airport Director Judd Hill took the floor to speak to the importance of the Essential Air Service program. “The Essential Air Services started up in ’78 to provide a subsidy to an airline to provide service to specifically rural communities … The upside of it is that with that we are absolutely connected to the outside world.” The downside, Hill said, is that the program serves very remote areas—so “it’s very simple for someone that’s representing Manhattan or Chicago or Tampa, Fla. to recommend defunding this particular program because it doesn’t [appear to] affect any of their constituents.”
Hill said the program is essential to Grand County’s continued health and growth, especially given the recent updates to the airport, but that the program is “always on the chopping block.” He expressed his hope that Curtis would support the program.
“Consider me an ally and supportive,” said Curtis.
Curtis commended Mary McGann’s work to support funding of the UMTRA project. McGann “is amazingly persistent and has worked with us very closely and has emphasized frequently how important this is to the region,” Curtis said. However, just because the funding had passed the House of Representatives didn’t mean that it—or any appropriations bill—would pass the Senate, Curtis said. Ryan Leavitt, Curtis’ deputy chief of staff, lamented the “broken” spending process in Congress. “It’s important to be realistic that the Senate may not get an appropriations bill done,” Leavitt said. Instead, he suggested working with the Department of Energy to see if there was a way “to move some of the funds that have been allocated to the agency and prioritize this project … our office is standing by ready to facilitate those conversations.”
Star Hall: Public lands
Successful politicians know how to read an audience, a skill that was demonstrated by Congressman John Curtis during the town hall meeting he held in Moab on July 30. The republican representative of Utah’s third district faced a decidedly left-leaning crowd and thus spent more time talking about issues where he opposes President Trump rather than espousing a conservative agenda. Curtis repeatedly emphasized the importance of bipartisan cooperation and highlighted his efforts to reach across the aisle. While a handful of hot-button issues were touched on at the 90-minute meeting, public land management issues, Bears Ears National Monument in particular, received the most attention.
Curtis introduced a bill to the House Natural Resources Committee that would prevent mineral leasing in the monument’s original boundaries as outlined in President Obama’s proclamation. The mineral withdrawal in Curtis’s bill has “the exact same provisions that were in President Obama’s [proclamation],” he said. However, Curtis said the bill is yet to gain traction, though he hopes once it passes through the committee that it will find more support. Curtis claimed there is consensus on what the outcome for the monument should be, but disagreement over how that can be achieved. “Most people all want the same outcome. I don’t meet people that want anything but to preserve and to protect, but I do meet people that have very diverse opinions on how it should be done,” he said.
In addition to the mineral withdrawal on all 1.3 million acres, Curtis’s bill “put together an archaeological protection unit… and brought in 20 additional law enforcement officers.” The bill keeps the advisory council created by President Obama, but also creates a decision-making board with a majority of seats reserved for Native Americans. After describing some of the details of his bill, Curtis asked the audience, “Those are some pretty good things right? Guess who supports my bill? Nobody… because our sides are so divided.” Curtis also argued against those who advocate for waiting until the lawsuits go through court or for a new president to be elected. “In my opinion, that’s a bad choice… that’s no way to manage the land.” Instead, Curtis extolled the benefits of legislative action. He said he believes in working toward “legislative action that goes in and settles this and does it with consensus building and does it in a way that’s the right way for the land, because that’s permanent. And it can bring in resources the Antiquities Act can’t bring in. But right now I’m having a hard time getting that much consensus on the bill…it sits in this perpetual state of uncertainty, and in my opinion, that’s the worst thing for the land.”
Curtis noted that just restoring the boundaries of what President Obama put in place may not actually benefit the land. “You haven’t brought in any additional resources to protect it, you haven’t identified how you’re going to take care of the antiquities. My bill did all those things. It’s a better approach,” he said. “People’s paradigm is ‘unless we restore what President Obama did, I’m going to object to it’ and that’s the very thing that’s keeping us from making progress,” Curtis continued. He suggested, “Let’s look at the outcome more than the method… if the outcome gives us what we want, let’s not fight the method.”
When asked about respecting the wishes of Native American tribes regarding the monument, Curtis described his recent visits to the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation. He also boasted that he is the first U.S. congressman to attend a Ute powwow. “I’m working really hard to respect them,” he said.
Asked directly if he would support a different president reinstating the monument’s original boundaries, Curtis said, “I don’t have a choice. I believe I have a better tool in my toolbox than the president has, so my attempt is to try to solve this legislatively.” Curtis’s bill is called H.R. 4532 – Shash Jaa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act, named after the two national monuments President Trump created when he redrew the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.
Another piece of legislation introduced by Curtis is the Emery County Public Land Management Act of 2018, which seeks to designate more than a half-million acres of wilderness around the San Rafael Swell. That bill was discussed significantly less, but one audience member asked about Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River and why the western Emery County side would be protected as wilderness while the Grand County side is left alone. “I would love both sides to be in the bill, but what happens is the moment we take the Emery County bill and we move it outside the county boundaries, we severely complicate it. Grand County has not gone through the same process that Emery County has gone through with their public lands council and their residents… you have to catch up with Emery County.” Curtis did say that if Grand County were to go through the public hearing process, he would be happy to support a public lands bill for the Moab area.
Other topics included the opioid crisis, marijuana legalization, campaign finance reform, coal, tariffs, the war on the media and family separation at the border.
Regarding opioids, Curtis described the bill moving through the house that started as about 50 different bills on opioids. “Ninety-nine percent, if not one-hundred percent, are bipartisan bills,” he said. “It has our attention… it is unacceptable what is happening with opioids across our country and right here in this district.” Curtis noted he is pleased that a bill he proposed has become an amendment that facilitates a study of the high rate at which opioids are prescribed to pregnant women. Curtis agreed when an audience member pointed out a connection between marijuana illegality and high usage of opioids. Though Curtis did not directly support legalization, he was not against it either. “I believe this is absolutely a state decision; however, the federal government has done a terrible job of giving states the information and the right-of-way that they need to make a good decision. I have cosponsored legislation that would facilitate studies on marijuana. I’m an advocate of the federal government getting out of the way and letting states make this decision,” he said.
On campaign finance reform, Curtis said he would overturn the Citizens United decision if he were able to. He described being outspent four to one during his campaign for congress and briefly detailed his experience with being targeted by negative ads funded by out-of-state companies. Curtis called the lack of transparency in campaign financing “terrible.” “I believe it is absolute: not a dollar has been spent by a PAC outside the state on my behalf that didn’t come through my account. Last year during my campaign… somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of my money was raised in Utah,” said Curtis, though he did not differentiate between money coming from small donors versus corporations. He said transparency and accountability are essential, but he would want more studies completed before supporting something as drastic as a constitutional amendment to address the issue.
Speaking about coal and energy development in general, Curtis expressed his support for alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. Curtis tempered that opinion by adding that we shouldn’t write off coal. “I’m kind of ‘all-of-the-above’ on exploring energy [options],” he said. Curtis added that examining other uses of coal like carbon fiber may be a better use of the resource and could help revitalize coal-dependent communities.
On the topics of tariffs and trade wars, the war on the media and the family separation policy, Curtis took the opportunity to distance himself from the current presidential administration. “Nobody wins a trade war, I’m not a fan of tariffs… I have taken as many opportunities as I can, both publicly and to the administration, to share those feelings,” he said, adding, “We must acknowledge that we are way out of balance with China on trade…but there are other tools in the toolbox to correct those problems.” Regarding President Trump’s attacks on the press, Curtis said the media’s near-constant coverage of the president gives him the power to dismantle their reputation. On the other hand, Curtis’s personal philosophy is “the press has always been a very important part of what I do… a strong relationship with them is extremely valuable.”
When Curtis said “there are a lot of people, and I’m sure there are a fair number here tonight, who would have me spend my waking hours trying to undo the president,” he was interrupted by uproarious applause. In response, Curtis said he must pick and choose his battles. “I try to very carefully pick those issues that I think are out of harmony with the third district’s values and you will hear me vocally speak out against them,” he said. For example, Curtis described confronting the president about separating children from their parents at the southern border. At a meeting with several hundred Republican congressmen and the president, Curtis blocked President Trump in a doorway, shook his hand, looked him in the eye and said, “I want you to know, in Utah it’s all about families.”