Amending the Idaho Constitution is no small undertaking, requiring legislative approval to put the matter on the ballot and then voters approving it. A meeting in Boise Monday with the intent of trying once again to grant the Idaho Department of Lands more leeway in selling large tracts of land brought together stakeholders in an attempt to find common ground for amendments that would remove an acreage limit now imposed by the constitution on Land Board dealings.
During the 2011 legislative session, two Senate Joint Resolutions that would have amended the Idaho Constitution were introduced, passed by the Senate 30-5, but rejected by the House due to concerns raised by the state’s timber industry. Those resolutions were SJR 102 and SJR 103.
SJR 102 would have allowed for the disposition of state endowment lands by the board of land commissioners in “a commercially reasonable manner consistent with the duties of care entrusted to the trustees and State law.” The amendment also would have removed the limitation on the sale of more than 320 acres to any one individual, company or corporation. These amendments would have allowed the Land Board to establish procedures for disposition of state endowment lands consistent with contemporary real estate transaction practices.
SJR 103 would have amended the Idaho Constitution to provide that no university lands be sold for less than the appraised price and to remove the restriction that no more than 160 acres of university lands may be sold to any one person, company or corporation. The amendment would also have allowed the board to dispose of university lands in a commercially reasonable manner.
According to the Endowment Fund Investment Board website, “Endowment income is derived from the sale of land, timber sales, land rentals, cottage site rentals, grazing rentals and mineral extraction from lands granted to the State of Idaho by the Congress of the United States.” The public schools fund is the largest beneficiary with other funds going to the University of Idaho for agricultural, science and general university needs since it is the state’s land grant school, to Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College for educating teachers, to State Hospital South, to the Capitol Permanent Fund, to the Penitentiary Fund and to the Charitable Institutions Fund at Idaho State University, the Juvenile Corrections Center, School for the Deaf and Blind, Idaho Veterans Home and State Hospital North.
The Monday meeting, hosted by Sens. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, and Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint., was intended to gather input from parties wishing to have a voice over these resolutions. According to Keough, the purpose of the meeting was to “identify common ground and concerns in front of the legislative session.”
Among the parties represented at the meeting were a number of people from the timber industry including a representative from Clearwater Paper Company; Steve Meyer from the Idaho Forest Group; George Bacon, director of the Department of Lands; Reps. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Max Black, R-Boise; a spokesperson for the Priest Lake leaseholders; Jack Lyman for the Idaho Mining Association; members of the Department of Lands Endowment Land Transaction Advisory Committee; and Charles Lyons of the Idaho Cattle Association.
Sen. Siddoway said he was concerned about the timber industry not being on board for the discussion of amendments during the 2011 session and shouldered the blame for not including them in the initial process. “I’ll take full blame for not having included the forest industry initially. I just didn’t see that. But we’re all here now.” He added, “These amendments are going to have to be common sense-type amendments. If we walk out of here with special interests having this advantage or that advantage and the endowment suffers, then it wasn’t worth it.”
Bacon agreed, saying, “There is a tension between the different interests, we all have a different interest. I don’t think the Land Board members would be supportive of real specific minutia. Constitutional amendments need to be the lowest common denominator that everyone can agree on.”
One of the issues that the Department of Lands has with the state constitution concerns the size limitations of the property in order to sell. Currently a piece of land can be no larger than 320 acres or it can’t be sold to only one person, company or one corporation. According to Bacon, that needs to change. “There doesn’t need to be a huge acreage number, but the limit needs to be bigger.”
If the number gets bigger however, some groups fear that big chunks of land could be sold and an industry could be hurt, as is the case with the timber industry, explained Meyer. “We’re not here trying to spoil a revision of the constitution. A steady supply of logs is our lifeblood. We would be very upset if a large chunk of land was sold and taken off the table to timber. I don’t fully understand where the Land Board is on this.”
Lyman, with the Idaho Mining Association, echoed Meyer’s comments: “We don’t want to get in anyone’s way, but we’ll probably be playing devil’s advocate.”
Bacon believes much of the dust-up over this issue stems from a property he referred to as “Buttercup.” He said it is a parcel of property “we couldn’t use it for grazing anymore, and we couldn’t find any use for it. The only thing it was good for was residential or to sell at a public auction. We knew if we invested a couple hundred thousand dollars that x would become 3x.”
He added, “There is a real problem for the state where it has an extremely large value (parcel of land) and can’t take advantage of it. We need more flexibility to ensure the highest returns,” said Bacon.
According to Siddoway, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Gov. Butch Otter have both said they were OK with SJR 102 and SJR 103. An interim committee is tentatively scheduled to meet on August 29-30 to discuss the issues raised by the two Senate resolutions.