November 29, 2008 in Voices

Land Board educating public

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Forty-one percent of Idahoans have never heard of the state Land Board, according to a new state-funded poll, and 92 percent don’t know who’s on it.

The panel, formally known as the Idaho State Board of Land Commissioners, is chaired by the governor, and also includes the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the state controller, and the state superintendent of schools. It’s responsible for managing the state’s endowment lands, whose earnings benefit public schools and other specific state institutions.

Gov. Butch Otter said even some state legislators have in recent years been unaware of the state’s endowment lands and their unique status, so the Land Board a year ago launched a public education push. As part of that, contractor Mike Tracy, a former state Republican Party executive director, and his communications firm commissioned a statewide “baseline” poll. That’ll allow results of the education campaign to be measured against a starting point.

The poll, conducted in September by Moore Information at a cost to the state of $18,725, showed that Idahoans consider the top benefit of state lands to be fish and wildlife habitat, followed by recreation for humans. The lands as a source of revenue for public schools and other state institutions came in third in the rankings – though that’s what the state Constitution says the endowment lands are for.

The poll found that after respondents learned that state endowment lands generate $60 million a year for schools, 75 percent supported the contention that, “Management activities on these lands are not intended to benefit the general public, but rather, to maximize the financial return for Idaho’s public schools and other institutions.”

George Bacon, director of the Idaho State Department of Lands, said the department has increasingly struggled in recent years to get neighbors, local officials and others to understand its aims for endowment lands.

“We think it’s money well spent if we can raise public awareness,” Bacon said.

Tracy’s contract is for up to $85,000 a year; it was renewed in September for a second year. That figure doesn’t include the polling cost. In addition to commissioning the poll, Tracy’s firm has redesigned the department’s annual report, developed a DVD for use in presentations about the department and its role, and is developing a communications outreach plan for the department.

Bacon noted that the department has no public information officer, and said, “Contracting seems to be better.”

When Idaho became a state in 1890, the Admissions Act granted the new state about 3 million acres of federal lands to support public schools, initially designated as sections 16 and 36 of every township. Another 650,000 acres was granted to support eight other institutions: An agricultural college; charitable institutions; a normal school for teacher education; the state penitentiary; a school of science; a mental hospital; the University of Idaho; and the state capitol.

It’s the land in the endowments that the state Land Board manages. An endowment fund, made up of proceeds from sale of former endowment lands, also helps fund public schools and the eight institutions with its earnings.

The poll asked Idahoans how they’d feel about fees being charged to use state forest lands for recreation activities, such as hunting, fishing, camping and hiking. There was strong support for such fees – 64 percent for and 32 percent against – if the fees went to “improve and maintain recreation opportunities on state forest lands,” but less support if the fees went to schools, 50 percent for and 46 percent against.

Asked about logging on state lands – which provides much of the income from state endowment lands – respondents to the poll were divided. Ten percent said current timber harvest levels on state lands are too high, 34 percent said they’re about right, 22 percent said they’re too low and 34 percent had no opinion.

Bacon said the polling will be repeated in a future year to see if the public education program is working, and whether it’s worth continuing.

Vegas man sentenced for ripping off PERSI

A 67-year-old Las Vegas man has been sentenced to three months in prison, three months home detention and five years of probation for collecting his mother’s PERSI retirement benefits for nearly three years after she’d died.

Vernon Geier, who pleaded guilty to interstate theft from the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, a federal crime, must pay back all the $65,000 in stolen funds; part of it already has been recovered. PERSI was electronically depositing the money into Geier’s mother’s bank account in Las Vegas; when she died in January of 2002, he never notified them, and the money kept coming until November 2004 when PERSI learned from other sources of her death.

U.S. Attorney Tom Moss commended the FBI for going after the case, saying, “In these days it is vitally important for the public to be assured that fraud committed against retirement and investment accounts is going to be aggressively pursued through the criminal justice system.”

How bad it’s getting

Idaho jobless claims last week took a dramatic jump up from the previous week – 20 percent – reaching a figure that’s double the number receiving unemployment checks during the same week a year earlier. “This is another indication of the severe weakening of Idaho’s economy,” said Idaho Department of Labor Director Roger Madsen. Gov. Butch Otter is expected to announce new state budget cuts on Monday.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com.

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