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Eye on Boise: Hart tax drama extended yet again

BOISE - Tax-protesting Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart has asked for and received 30 more days to respond to federal authorities’ move to foreclose on his Athol home. The action was sparked by years of unpaid federal income taxes, interest and penalties.

Hart, who has been acting as his own attorney, asked for a delay until Jan. 5 to allow him time to hire an attorney and get the new lawyer up to speed to file the response.

Justice Department attorneys raised no objection, and U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge granted Hart the delay.

Now, Hart has filed to have Kentucky attorney Charles E. McFarland represent him in the case. McFarland represented excavation business owner and tax protester Fred Allnutt Sr., of Ellicott City, Md., in an unsuccessful appeal to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2008, charging that a statute of limitations should bar an IRS notice of deficiency ordering Allnutt to pay $2 million.

The U.S. Department of Justice says Hart owed $549,703.48 to the IRS as of Oct. 31 for back income taxes, interest and penalties. The DOJ has filed in federal court to foreclose on his Athol home to satisfy the debt. The log home, ironically, was built partly from timber Hart illegally logged from state school endowment land in 1996, for which he never fully satisfied a court judgment. Hart, a Republican, is in his fourth term in the House.

‘Degrees of agony’

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said that despite the positive budget outlook and growing revenues lawmakers are facing, he doesn’t feel like the state’s in surplus mode, with its revenue still below 2008 levels. “From my way of thinking, a surplus is when you have paid all your bills and you have money left over,” he said. “We’re not at that point. We haven’t paid all our bills.”

He pointed to tens of millions of dollars that state hospitals and nursing homes assessed themselves to help Idaho keep its federal Medicaid matching funds this year, and automatic salary fund reductions built into the public school budget going years out into the future. “That in my mind should be paid for,” he said. “So in my mind, we’re not operating with a surplus.”

Said Cameron, “I guess early on I cringed at all the jubilation. … I’ll be happy when we get back to revenues growing at a reasonable pace,” and ground lost since 2008 has been made up. “Then I’ll breathe a sigh of relief. Until then, it’s more pain, it’s just in degrees of agony.”

Religion law no help on pot charge

A Boise man has failed to convince Idaho’s Court of Appeals that he can’t be prosecuted for marijuana possession because he used the drug as a religious sacrament after Idaho lawmakers in 2000 voted to elevate religious rights over all other rights in the state’s “Free Exercise of Religion” act.

That law, passed over the objections of nearly all the state’s mainstream churches, promised attorney fees and costs to anyone who wins a case under it claiming the government violated their religious rights. It was pushed by then-Idaho pastor Bryan Fischer, an outspoken Christian conservative who a year later was named chaplain of the Idaho Senate.

Cary William White was arrested for marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia after a traffic stop in 2007. He appealed his case to the state Court of Appeals, saying his religion, including a mix of Christianity, Rastafarianism and various other beliefs, was behind his marijuana use. “The sacrament of Marijuana is a gift from my creator and I enter into the experience of Marijuana with the intent to bless it,” White said in court documents.

Idaho’s Court of Appeals judges, in a unanimous decision authored by Judge Sergio Gutierrez, tossed out White’s appeal. “While White may have testified in a manner to link his marijuana use to legitimate religious beliefs and practices, this was more of an instance where he has utilized parts of various recognized religions ‘to meld into a justification for his use of marijuana’ and did not … establish a link between any recognized religious beliefs he may have and his marijuana use,” the court wrote.

The judges also pointed to a 1995 federal court case that warned that religious freedom laws could become “the first refuge of scoundrels if defendants could justify illegal conduct simply by crying ‘religion.’ ”