Eye On Boise

Officials fly on state plane for lobbying tour, mining industry foots the bill

Idaho state officials flew on a state plane for a lobbying tour of phosphate mines last month, with a mining industry group footing the bill, the Associated Press reports, though the Idaho Transportation Department doesn't allow private groups to charter state planes. Lt. Gov. Brad Little said the move will save taxpayers money, but a group that opposes Idaho phosphate mine expansion questioned the arrangement. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

ID officials fly state plane, mining industry pays

BYJOHN MILLER, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A mining industry group agreed to pay for the use of a state-owned airplane that took Idaho officials, lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Brad Little on a lobbying tour of phosphate mines last month, though the Idaho Transportation Department doesn't allow such planes to be chartered by private groups.

Jack Lyman, an Idaho Mining Association lobbyist and organizer of the Sept. 11 trip, is reimbursing $2,543 to Little's office, which arranged for the flight with the transportation department.

At least one environmental group questioned giving Lyman access to a taxpayer-owned plane, on grounds that phosphate mining critics weren't represented on the trip.

Also among the passengers were Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Republican House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke and Clive Strong, a deputy attorney general who handles natural resource issues.

Little said Friday that thousands of jobs in southeastern Idaho depend on phosphate mining and companies such as Monsanto Co., J.R. Simplot Co., and Agrium, Inc., so there was a legitimate public policy reason for the trip. Using the plane made it more convenient to learn about issues including water pollution from selenium leaking from mines, he said.

Having someone else pay for the flight on Idaho's 10-seat, twin-engine King Air will save taxpayers money, Little said.

"That would have consumed my entire travel budget for a year," said Little, a Republican appointed by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. "Any time you have an industry that affects 3,000 people, we're always concerned about it. It's just good policy we keep track of what's going on over there."

Little's monthly travel budget is $400.

That day, Little and the others toured Simplot's Smoky Canyon Mine expansion, Monsanto's proposed Blackfoot Bridge Mine and an Agrium site. The plane landed in Wyoming, near Smoky Canyon, then flew to Soda Springs, Idaho, before returning to Boise.

Lyman called the flight a "unique circumstance."

Little "had to get back to Boise by 5:30 p.m. so I asked if he could use the state plane to get there," Lyman said. "His office thought he could but didn't have budget to cover the cost. I offered to pay the cost if we could get enough other state officials to travel with him."

Lyman judged the trip a valid use of the state plane, so he didn't seek an offer from a private charter company.

Idaho Transportation Department rules allow only state agencies to book the plane, in part because letting groups outside government do so could unfairly compete with private charter companies. Though the Idaho Mining Association planned the trip and is paying for the plane, transportation spokesman Jeff Stratten said that doesn't breach the policy.

"The plane was reserved by the lieutenant governor's office for government business," Stratten said in an e-mail. "The flight fulfills the mission of the state's aircraft to facilitate state business and the reservation and billing process are within the operational guidelines of the department."

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which has fought Idaho phosphate mine expansion, said giving industry access to the King Air to ferry elected leaders around for lobbying purposes raises questions about the ties between officials and businesses that want something from them.

The mining industry has been active politically; in the 2009 Legislature, lawmakers passed a rule letting companies mine without being forced to restore groundwater beneath their operations to its natural condition.

"Where is the transparency and where is the balance in this?" said Jeff Welsch, a Greater Yellowstone Coalition spokesman. "Taxpayer property was used for lobbying purposes by the Idaho Mining Association. Shouldn't there have been a seat on that plane for somebody to show lawmakers what the Mining Association doesn't want them to see: The continued poisoning of waters and lands in the area by phosphate mining?"

A century of phosphate mining has polluted the Blackfoot River, other waterways and vegetation with elevated selenium levels. On Aug. 5, 18 cattle grazing in the region died from selenium poisoning.

Monsanto, now seeking federal approval for Blackfoot Bridge to supply its Roundup weed killer, and J.R. Simplot, which is expanding its Smoky Canyon mine to make fertilizer, contend they've learned from past errors and can mine without adding to pollution.

Letting lobbyists pay for lawmakers to use Idaho's plane is a novel twist on an old relationship: State officials regularly get their commercial airline tickets, meals, lodging and other expenses associated with private lobbying events paid for by companies hosting the functions.

Idaho law requires lobbyists to publicly disclose expenditures of $75 and up to the secretary of state.

"Our concern is, it gets reported," said Tim Hurst, deputy secretary of state, of the cost of the flight. "We don't set the travel policies for the state plane."

Some advocacy groups interested in phosphate mining didn't see much of a distinction between Lyman reimbursing Little's office to use the plane and paying for private transportation to get officials to southeastern Idaho.

"If he's reimbursing the state, who am I to say Jack shouldn't be able to advocate for his clients?" said Justin Hayes, of the Idaho Conservation League, which has been critical of the industry. "If I had the money to do it, I'd do it, too — as long as it was lawful."

Bob Cooper, a spokesman for Wasden, said having somebody outside government foot the bill for the state-owned plane was appropriate, especially given Idaho's projected $151 million budget shortfall.

"They were invited to go, there was difficulty with schedules, so they decided to take the state plane," said Cooper. "And Jack Lyman offered to reimburse the state. In this budget situation, it seemed reasonable."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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