Writings and observations

The cost of a lands shift

ridenbaugh Northwest
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From a March 21 letter written by Boise attorney (and former legislative candidate, and former U.S. attorney) Betty Richardson to the Idaho Legislature, on two measures intended to move some lands from federal to state control.

I write with regard to HCR 21 and HCR 22, both of which pertain to transferring much of Idaho’s federally owned land to the state. HCR 21 proposes that “the legislative council appoint a committee to undertake and complete a study of the process of the state acquiring title to and control of public lands controlled by the federal government in the state of Idaho.” HCR 22 sets out findings and demands the federal government “extinguish title to Idaho’s public lands and transfer title to those lands to the state of Idaho.”

Prior to making the demand referenced in HCR 22, it would seem wise to complete the study proposed in HCR 21. Further, it would seem crucial to expand the scope of that study to include a cost analysis, calculating the likely financial return to the state, as well as the cost to the state, of assuming the many obligations for which the federal government is now responsible. The important thing in any legislative change is to be thorough and honest. If the study committee takes a careful look at the fiscal issues, the legislature may find it prudent to proceed more slowly, if at all.

My concerns arise from my seven years of experience as the United States Attorney for the District of Idaho (1993-2001). A thorough cost analysis, I believe, will find the costs of a land transfer to far exceed the financial benefits. For instance, the transfer would require a huge additional state work force – not only to manage the lands but to carry out a great many attendant responsibilities. Below I offer just a few examples.

Presently, the federal government has the primary responsibility for investigating and prosecuting criminal activity on federal land and for defending its agencies when they are sued in civil actions. If the proposed land transfer were to take place, the state would be responsible not only for managing those lands, but also for investigating and prosecuting crimes that occur there and defending the many civil suits that will continue to be filed by landowners and environmental interests alike.

Moreover, federal law enforcement plays a critical role in eradicating illegal marijuana growing operations. Last year, federal, county and local law enforcement officers took down marijuana growing operations near Galena Summit in the Sawtooth National Forest, and in Caribou and Jerome counties. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management brought substantial resources to bear in these eradication efforts, resources that would need to be replaced by the state were a land transfer to take place.

In my opinion, the additional costs of investigation, criminal prosecution and civil defense would be enormous. At a minimum, they would include the cost of replacing BLM and USFS law enforcement officers, who conduct investigations, and the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who prosecute the criminal activity and defend the civil actions. However, there also would be a concomitant impact on the state probation and parole agencies as well as on the state judiciary as these cases would no longer be heard in federal court, but rather in state court. Moreover, when federal defendants are incarcerated, the cost currently is borne by the federal Bureau of Prisons. If the state were to take over law enforcement on federal lands, the state would have to house more prisoners in an Idaho Department of Corrections system which is already overcrowded. These costs may not be as readily apparent as those more directly related to land use management, but they are no less real and would need to be met.

Such a land transfer would also result in the termination of federal funding of Idaho counties through the payments in lieu of taxes program. PILT provides some financial compensation to counties for federal land within their borders that cannot be a source of property taxes. In 2012, Idaho counties received $26,560,218 through PILT. If the federal land is transferred to the state, would the state be prepared to provide counties with this lost revenue?

The above examples are illustrative only. There are no doubt additional ways in which the transfer of federal land to the state would force the state to assume more responsibilities and more financial burdens. When all financial impacts are taken into account, I believe the study committee will find that such a transfer would be a poor bargain. If I am mistaken and the study committee determines that the state would be able to meet all the additional burdens of the proposed land transfer, then there will be ample opportunity to revisit HCR 22. However, passage of HCR 22 prior to obtaining complete and accurate fiscal impact information would seem to be unwise and premature. Thus, I would urge you to expand the scope of the HCR 21 study and table HCR 22 until the study is complete.

Thank you for considering my views. Please contact me if I can answer any questions.

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One Comment

  1. fortboise said:

    Great letter, Betty. I do wish our legislature put a higher value on thoroughness, honesty, and prudence than they do on their posturing. A resolution has only the power of its persuasion (and what executive response might pass legal muster), which leaves one to wonder who the legislators voting for this think they might be persuading.

    March 25, 2013

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