Public lands panel won’t report until 2015

The Idaho Legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee will take its time studying whether the state could or should acquire public lands controlled by the federal government.

Sen. Chuck Winder, a Boise Republican and committee co-chairman, said the group has until the 2015 legislative session to make its recommendations.

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Sen. Chuck Winder

“This is not a process we’re going to do real speedily or without proper investigation of the issues,” Winder said. “No real recommendations will be made to the next session of the Legislature.”

The committee convened for the first time Friday at the Statehouse.

Although natural resources policy discussions dominated the meeting, there is a strong education tie-in. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a resolution that stipulated 5 percent of the sales of all federal lands would be funneled into the Public School Endowment Fund rainy day account. The other 95 percent of proceeds from sales would be directed to paying down the federal debt.

The committee’s purpose is to study whether Idaho should demand federal lands, which could, potentially, be sold to private owners.

Public lands policy experts who testified Friday said Congress would need to act in order for federal land to be turned over to the state.

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Jay O’Laughlin, a professor of forestry and policy sciences at the University of Idaho, also discussed the Secure Rural Schools Act and Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which sends money to counties that include national forests within its boundaries.

The SRS Act, sometimes referred to as the Craig-Wyden Act, was a temporary program first passed in 2000.

“Unless reauthorized by Congress, payments to the counties under the SRS and Payments in Lieu of Taxes programs are history and would have consequences,” said O’Laughlin, recounting testimony he made before Congress in March. “Some counties will be hard-pressed to maintain local roads and schools without some form of payment to compensate for tax-exempt federal lands.”

Hartgen update

Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, is recovering from July 30 open heart surgery and did not attend Friday’s meeting.

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Rep. Stephen Hartgen

While Hartgen recovers, Rep. Terry Gestrin, a first-term Republican from Donnelly, has been appointed to sit in, Winder announced.

Hartgen, the former publisher of the Twin Falls Times-News, is a third-term lawmaker and chairman of the Legislature’s House Commerce and Human Resources Committee.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said Hartgen continues to recover in a Boise hospital, and had “a good day” on Thursday.

 What’s next?

Committee members indicated that they hope to reconvene two more times this year. Winder asked for the committee to meet again in October and once more in early December.
The 2014 legislative session begins in January.