BOISE - Tribe-owned lands on Idaho Indian reservations haven’t been charged property taxes by surrounding counties since statehood; the Idaho Constitution prohibits it. But in 2006, an array of counties in Idaho started sending tax bills to Indian tribes for tribal-owned properties.
This year, Idaho’s five Indian tribes received a total of just over $300,000 in property tax bills for tribe-owned properties on reservations. Some of the tribes have paid the bills; some have paid under protest; some have entered into talks with their local counties. But Helo Hancock, legislative director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, told the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning that Idaho should clarify the issue in state law; Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Montana already have done so. Washington’s law passed in 2005.
Hancock said the tribes have made presentations about the issue to both the Idaho Association of Counties and the Idaho State Tax Commission. “They haven’t raised any opposition,” he said. “I think the counties need this clarity just as much as the tribes do.”
Some of the properties at issue were once homesteaded by non-Indians; asked about that, Hancock explained that they originally were part of reservations, and then the federal government opened them up for homesteading by others. Since then, the tribes have repurchased the properties. Other properties at issue are original trust lands of tribes on their reservations.
On behalf of all five of Idaho’s tribes, Hancock proposed legislation to recognize that tribal government properties on reservations are exempt from taxation as are other government properties, including state, federal and local governments.
Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “Apparently we have not been doing that, but suddenly everybody’s starving to death and so we’re going to go for taxes. … I think at least in my personal opinion that we should not tax those lands, and I’m really sorry that we’re all so desperate that we’ve got to find little pockets of money anywhere we can.”
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, moved to introduce Hancock’s proposed bill, and the motion passed unanimously. That clears the way for a full hearing on it in the committee.
Prior to the vote, Barrett revealed for the record a potential conflict of interest: She is a “card-carrying member” of an Oklahoma Indian tribe, the Kansa, or Kaw. “I am just barely enough to qualify, but I do qualify and I am a member of the tribe and I do have a card,” Barrett said. “So does my son.”
Both Kootenai and Benewah counties in North Idaho are among those that have sent property tax bills to tribes, in their case to the Coeur d’Alenes.
Asked why the tribes decided to propose legislation rather than sue under the provisions of the state Constitution, Hancock said, “We’ve tried to approach this in a more amicable way. … We’re hoping that rather than going to court on this, this is something we can resolve through a public policy decision.”