In August, Republican Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn announced his plan to ask the federal government to turn over “upwards of 6.5 millions acres” of “unleased federal subsurface mineral acreage” (ie, federal public lands) and federal mining leases to him.
“Any and all unleased land… would then be leased out by the State Land Office” for new oil and gas permits, Dunn said.
At the time, he had a big problem: a Democratic president who favors more public lands.
But with Donald Trump in the White House, Tea Party leaders in Congress see a new opportunity to transfer our public lands to private hands – and apparently so does Aubrey Dunn.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a fierce anti-public lands Republican in Utah, is urging President-elect Donald Trump to abolish national monuments created by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. More than 270 million acres of American land and waters are potentially at risk—an area two and a half times the size of California.
The action would be unprecedented. No president in history has undone the creation of a national monument by a predecessor.
Even though no president in history has ever done what Dunn and Rep. Bishop propose, Donald Trump is not like any president we’ve ever known.
And with a Republican-led House and Senate on deck and Trump’s ability to appoint a conservative justice to give the Supreme Court a conservative majority, some believe that Trump’s first two years will usher in a tidal wave of extreme policies like the transfer of public lands.
Unlike federal agencies, the State Land Commissioner has broad and almost unchecked authority to designate state public lands for development, including oil and gas drilling and sale to private developers.
Pete Domenici returns to sell off public lands
That’s likely why Dunn announced today that he hired long-time Republican US Senator Pete Domenici to lead a new effort to turn over federal public lands to New Mexico’s anti-public lands land commissioner.
Because the transfer would require both state and federal approval, Domenici will be required to persuade his former Congressional colleagues to pass a bill giving Land Commissioner Dunn control of federal lands in New Mexico.
The president could conceivably block that effort, if the president wasn’t Donald Trump who has publicly speculated about putting oil and gas executives in charge of the Department of Interior.
Dunn says it’s for education funding. It’s not.
Dunn says the transfer of federal oil permits to the state would generate new income for the state’s education permanent funds, but that’s not necessarily the case. Federal public lands leased for oil and gas revenue production already generate $435.6 million per year for state education.
But the state already has one of the largest permanent funds in the country – $15 billion and growing.
State legislative proposals to use as little as 1% of that fund to provide universal early childhood education have been blocked by Republican leaders, aided by a small coalition of conservative Democrats.
The Land Grant Permanent Fund is often referred to as a “rainy day fund” for the state. In 2015, Senator Heinrich told the legislative session, “It’s raining” and asked why they blocked the use of education funds to prepare New Mexico children for kindergarten.
Read more: Udall, Heinrich: pass the damn amendment
On a federal level, transferring those lands from federal agencies would greatly expand the federal budget deficit, by $1.6 billion per year according to one estimate.
The Santa Fe New Mexican:
Ben Shelton, political director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, said last week that Dunn’s bill is “a new spin on an old idea — the same standard as Koch brothers’ federal land seizure that has swept the West in recent years. This time, it’s masquerading as an attempt to benefit New Mexico’s children.”
Dunn to appear with Domenici at ALEC conference
The Santa Fe New Mexican also reports that Domenici and Dunn are scheduled to discuss that proposal during a Friday meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Washington, D.C. ALEC is a controversial conservative organization in which state legislators and representatives of corporations meet to discuss proposed bills for state legislatures to consider.