Lawmakers grapple with endowment issues

The numbers are significant: Activities on 2.45 million acres of state land have built an endowment exceeding $1.7 billion, generating more than $31 million a year for K-12.

A legislative committee wants to find ways to boost that bottom-line figure.

The Endowment Asset Issues Interim Committee met Thursday at the Statehouse to begin the job assigned by legislative colleagues: to study the endowment, including its financial performance. Thursday’s meeting coincided with a series of auctions of state cabin lease sites on Priest Lake (the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell is covering the auctions from Coeur d’Alene.)

They kicked off their job with a dose of legal advice — which, not surprisingly, was conflicting.

Former Attorney General David Leroy exhorted lawmakers to use what he called “The Cenarrusa Doctrine.” Named for Pete Cenarrusa, the longtime former secretary of state, the idea is to maintain the endowment’s long-range health by forging predictable and symbiotic long-term relationships with lessees. In essence, that means lessees such as logging, mining and ranching operations.

But Leroy conceded that the doctrine has had a spotty record in courts; in 1999, the state Supreme Court struck down a law designed to restrict an environmental group, the Idaho Watersheds Project, from bidding for rangeland leases.

That point wasn’t lost on Clive Strong, the chief of Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s natural resources division. The Legislature could pursue “The Cenarrusa Doctrine,” but Strong said lawmakers may have to do it by amending the state Constitution.

The keystone of the Constitution, with regards to the endowment, requires the state to “secure the maximum long-term financial return” from endowment lands. In that sense, state endowment lands are different than federal lands, which are managed as public lands.

“They have a different mission and a different purpose,” said Jay O’Laughlin, a University of Idaho professor.

Public lands roadshow

Which provides a segue to other interim committee news.

A panel looking at federal lands ownership will go on an extensive road trip starting next month.

The Federal Lands Interim Committee will hold seven public hearings, starting Sept. 11 in St. Maries and Kamiah. This committee has been meeting since last August to consider a complicated constitutional matter: Should Idaho demand a transfer of federal lands, in an attempt to add this acreage to the state’s endowment portfolio?

“We thought that it was important that the people have their say in what they think about the state taking over title to the federal lands,” Midvale Republican Rep. Lawerence Denney, co-chairman of the committee, told Russell. “And that was certainly always the plan – last year was to be fact-finding, this year was more public hearing.”

The committee is scheduled to make its recommendations to the 2015 Legislature.

The roadshow has come under some election-year criticism, since Denney is running for secretary of state, opposed by state Rep. Holli Woodings, D-Boise. Lewiston Tribune editorial page editor Marty Trillhaase dinged Denney for making “a series of statewide swings at taxpayer expense, right in the middle of campaign season.”