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Lawmakers return donations from Priest Lake land lessees

Priest Lake as seen from a cabin in July 2012.  (FILE)
Priest Lake as seen from a cabin in July 2012. (FILE)
Dan Popkey Idaho Statesman

Top Idaho lawmakers have returned scores of campaign contributions that appeared to be linked to action on state-owned cabin lots at Priest and Payette lakes.

Stunned last fall by the Idaho Land Board canceling land swaps involving 69 cabins at the two lakes, leaseholders are seeking a legislative remedy this year.

But with letters that accompanied January contributions suggesting “money buys elections” and “I hope I can buy a little of your attention,” some leaseholders have put the legislation at risk, one state senator said.

“I’m really disappointed with what some of the letters have said,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, whose district includes Priest Lake. “But I believe folks did this innocently.”

Keough is working on a bill to clear the way for land exchanges that could help about 350 leaseholders at Priest Lake and 140 at Payette Lake in Southern Idaho.

“They’re angry, they’re confused, they’re hurt, they want closure,” Keough said. “But this is a distraction, and it casts a bad light on the folks at the lakes.”

Contributions ranged from $10 to $150, lawmakers said, but most were at $49 or $50 – just below the $51 where gifts must be itemized on campaign finance reports.

“Somebody must’ve told them the breaking point is $49,” said Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who lives on land he owns at the lake but has neighbors on 11 nearby state lots.

The $49 and $50 contributions troubled Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, a member of the Land Board who oversees Idaho’s campaign finance disclosure laws.

Though not illegal, Ysursa said, “When somebody’s sending that stuff around, they’re obviously doing it not to have it disclosed, and that goes against the fiber of the law. I don’t think it was a very good public-policy tactic.” 

Keough and Anderson are working on legislation to loosen what Gov. Butch Otter called a “noose around our necks,” a state law that says exchanges must involve “similar lands of equal value, public or private.” 

Two complex exchanges involving cabin sites and commercial buildings were canceled in October, in part because of that provision, dashing the Land Board’s four-year effort to divest itself of the sites for more easily manageable and profitable investments.

Priest Lake State Lessees’ Association President Denny Christenson said in a Jan. 29 association newsletter that the denial of the swaps was “shocking” and “maddening” after all the effort lessees made to arrange the exchanges. Now, he fears letters suggesting contributions might buy influence “could pollute” reform efforts. Christenson said the association board “had absolutely nothing to do with these donations.”

One Priest Lake leaseholder, Mark Finley, of Spokane, said he doesn’t understand the fuss.

“Am I supposed to believe that a generic $15 grass-roots campaign donation will actually ‘buy’ support or the attention of a senator or representative who last election raised $20,000 to $40,000?” Finley asked.

But several lawmakers returned the money, including Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg; House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls; Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; and House Assistant Minority Leader Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. The number of contributions ranged from about a dozen for Davis to about 30 for Bedke.

Keough and Anderson said they kept their checks, which they said didn’t include the sort of “something for something” language others received. They also cited long-term relationships with contributors who have given many times. 

“These are my neighbors,” Anderson said. “They have a need for a legislative remedy. That’s no different than the dairymen or my logging friends or my public power friends.”

Keough’s Senate Bill 1277, introduced Monday, addresses the “similar lands” issue, allowing exchanges for land of equal value, regardless of use.

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