Idaho legislative leaders are dreaming the impossible dream, but taxpayers are financing the quixotic quest to “take back” federal lands.
Before Idaho ever became a state, the land was made up of federal territories. The founding fathers of the Gem State petitioned the federal government for inclusion, and then wrote and signed a state constitution with this passage: “The people of the state of Idaho forever disclaim the unappropriated public lands that lie within the borders of our state.”
You can’t take back what you never had, but that’s not stopping Idaho lawmakers. They figure they can greatly expand Idaho’s economy if they can control that land. This issue formed the dividing line between Republicans in the May primaries, with pragmatists correctly stating that this pursuit would be a waste of time and money.
Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is no fan of the federal government, but he knows a losing legal hand when he sees one. The take-back faction has found him unhelpful, because he keeps pointing to that pesky line in the state constitution. So they went shopping for a different legal opinion with taxpayer money.
The Associated Press reports that a federal lands interim committee formed by the Legislature has hired outside legal counsel at a cost of about $41,000 to date. The spending was approved by House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill. The co-chairman of the interim panel, Sen. Chuck Winder, told a Montana legislative committee about last month’s maneuver. The other co-chairman is Rep. Lawerence Denney, a candidate for secretary of state. Some members of the interim panel say they weren’t informed of the hire.
Speaking in Montana, Winder said William Myers, a Boise attorney who served as chief legal officer at the U.S. Department of Interior during the George W. Bush administration, had been hired because the attorney general’s office “didn’t give us a whole lot of imagination or creativity on what the political solutions might be.”
That’s because Wasden’s job is to interpret laws, not find ways to skirt them.
Legality aside, the take-back faction hasn’t even figured out if the state would come out ahead if it took over federal land. Citing a Congressional Research Service report requested by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, the Idaho Statesman reported last October that the three federal agencies managing lands within Idaho borders spent $392 million in 2012.
That dwarfs the $50 million to $75 million the Idaho Department of Lands has estimated the state could raise annually in timber receipts from federal land. And that estimate does not include the $58 million in payments under two federal programs that compensate counties for not being able to raise timber revenues or tax federal land.
This has raised the suspicion that the ultimate goal is to sell the land, but proponents deny this.
It doesn’t matter, because any attempt to take over federal land will be gaveled into oblivion, and taxpayers will be handed the bill.