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Idaho Land Board votes to oppose Republican-backed law

UPDATED: Tue., March 16, 2021

By Keith Ridler Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Land Board on Tuesday voted to oppose a proposed law backed by Republican lawmakers that would ban the attorney general’s office from representing the state department of lands.

Gov. Brad Little, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Schools Chief Sherri Ybarra are members of the Land Board and abstained from voting.

But Secretary of State Lawerence Denney and State Controller Brandon Woolf, the other members of the board, voted to oppose the bill, resulting in a 2-0 vote in favor. All of the board’s members are Republicans.

With the vote, the board instructed Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller to appear before lawmakers at public hearings and oppose the legislation on behalf of the board and the lands department.

The board directs the lands department in managing about 3,900 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) of state-owned land. The board is constitutionally required to maximize long-term profit on the land, with most proceeds going to public schools.

The legislation the board considered is one of two bills put forward by Republican lawmakers that could significantly defund Wasden’s office. Another would give other state agencies the ability to hire private attorneys rather than use state attorneys for work such as state contracts.

Lawmakers have said Wasden’s office has a conflict of interest in representing state agencies, especially the lands department because he is a board member.

Wasden has angered Republicans by defending state-owned land and a constitutional mandate requiring profits to be maximized from logging, grazing and mining leases on that land so that the money benefits schoolchildren. That can mean higher prices for those sectors in mostly rural Idaho.

Wasden also angered conservative lawmakers by not joining a Texas lawsuit to invalidate the presidential election last year. He has also repeatedly warned that some legislation proposed by Idaho lawmakers is unconstitutional.

The Idaho Departments of Lands on Tuesday said that it spends about $400,000 annually to be represented by state attorneys. The cost would jump to nearly $2 million if it is required to hire private attorneys under the proposed legislation, the department said.

Woolf, the state controller, said he disagreed with some aspects of the bills.

“I believe that the five of us as Land Board members have the right and authority to decide who we would like to provide legal counsel for our board and the department,” said Woolf.

He also said hiring private attorneys would reduce profits from state lands, which currently generate about $80 million annually for distribution.

Secretary of State Denney sided with Woolf.

“The vast majority of the legal advice that we need is certainly not controversial or in conflict in any way, and I think that we do have the authority, when there is a conflict, to hire outside counsel,” Denney said.

Little, who is responsible for signing bills into law or vetoing them, declined to take part in the vote for that reason. He did not say whether he would sign or veto the legislation considered by the Land Board if it is approved by lawmakers and submitted to him.

Wasden and Ybarra, who each attended the meeting remotely, did not explain their decisions for abstaining.

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