BOISE — A bill to create a legislative council to work on federal lands issues could get some extensive rewrites.
The Lincoln Auditorium was full for the Senate Resources and Environment Committee’s hearing on the bill Monday afternoon, and 150 people signed up to testify according to committee Chairman Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls. Many wore orange stickers with a picture of Idaho on them and “Keep Your Hands Off My Public Lands” written across it.
After seven members of the public testified, Heider asked the audience to show their views by raising their hands. The vast majority of people there were against the bill. Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Three Creek, then made a motion, which passed unanimously, to send the bill to the Senate’s amending order.
Brackett said he thinks the council needs to include representatives of more interested groups. He said it should be modeled on the Sage Grouse Task Force that helped come up with sage grouse conservation recommendations.
“I think that would be a (good) model to follow,” he said. “We have to craft something that reflects that.”
As written, the bill, which already passed the House, would create an eight-member council, four House members and four senators, to meet at least twice a year and monitor and review federal lands-related issues and policies. The council would be tasked with advising the Legislature on federal lands-related issues, and assisting lawmakers to develop and implement “legislation, cooperative policies, programs, and procedures focusing on the unique relationship between federal and state government as it relates to federal lands in the state of Idaho,” according to the bill text. The council also would facilitate contracts between the federal and individuals or state and local agencies.
The bill passed the House last month with all the Democrats opposed and all but one Republican in favor. About 60 percent of all land in Idaho is owned by the federal government, and many Republican lawmakers have supported increasing the state’s role in managing them, while Democrats and conservation groups have been wary of such efforts.
“There is a concurrent decline between the decline of resource use in Idaho ... and the decline of our income,” said Idaho Freedom Foundation Vice President Fred Birnbaum.
Supporters of the lands council bill cast it as a way for the state to get a seat at the table and push for changes to cut through red tape and make things easier for miners, loggers, ranchers and other such users of public lands.
“Finding ways to open up to multiple uses of federal lands would be wonderful for these counties,” said sponsor Sen. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs.
Some opponents of the bill worried it could end up costing much more than the $10,000 to $15,000 a year in the bill’s fiscal note, an amount based on the usual expenses for interim legislative committees. However, Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the Federal Lands Interim Committee that studied similar issues in 2013 and 2014 spent more than $90,000 in legal fees.
Former Rep. Merrill Beyeler, a Republican rancher from Leadore, urged the committee to amend the bill to include more voices on the council than just the Legislature. Also, he said the state should seek legal advice on the issue from the attorney general’s office, not outside lawyers.
“If you have just one entity, I’m not sure you’re going to have a very strong voice,” he said.
Stennett and Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, also pointed to an opinion from the Idaho attorney general’s office that raised potential legal problems with the bill. Deputy Attorney General Steven Strack wrote that the bill seemed constitutional on its face but that it is possible the council could exercise its authority in a way that would lead to separation of powers concerns.