Current decisions by those overseeing Idaho’s endowment lands could threaten the very residents the program was intended to help. As a state representative for the district that is home to Idaho’s land grant university, I’d like you to understand how the land grant endowment funds work, and what those threats are.
Our nation’s founders believed that the bedrock of liberty is education. To cement their commitment to a universal public education, in 1785 Congress established the “General Land Ordinance.” Surveys divided public land in each territory into “townships” of 36 mile-square sections. Once a state joined the union, the title to Section 16 for each township was transferred to the state, with proceeds from the sale or the management of the land was to benefit schools. Later legislation included additional land grants to benefit other public institutions, including colleges and universities, state hospitals and correctional facilities.
Idaho was granted about 3,600,000 acres of “endowment” land for the sole purpose of funding these beneficiaries. Our Idaho Constitution further mandates that they be managed “ … in such manner as will secure the maximum long-term financial return to the institution to which [it is] granted.”
Although not unconstitutional, several years ago the Idaho Land Board adopted a strategy to keep their investments from competing against private industry after receiving criticism over owning storage units and commercial buildings. The updated investment strategy specifically prioritizes the purchase of “forest, rangeland and agricultural properties.”
On the surface, the strategy looks appealing. After all, one of Idaho’s most important resources is our public land. But once you dig a little deeper, a host of problems emerge.
The Idaho Land Board currently has more than $150 million from the sale of “cottage sites” in the McCall and Priest Lake areas. They are considering the purchase of privately-owned timberlands in Idaho with these funds, which removes those properties from the county tax base.
If this new property were purchased in the counties where the cottage sales took place, there would be no net change to the county’s taxable land base. But that’s not the plan. Any county with timberland is subject to losing property from their tax base.
Counties like Latah, Benewah, Shoshone, Idaho and Lemhi already have small populations and lots of public lands. Additional land board purchases would further decrease the tax base, shifting the cost of public schools and county programs (like law enforcement and the justice system) to the remaining private land.
Many property owners, myself included, have seen their property tax bill take dramatic increases. It’s difficult to imagine what further strains on county budgets would do to future tax bills. Critical and costly elements of timberland ownership, like land stewardship or management of natural disasters like forest fires are not included as land board expenses, with the cost shifted to the state. Nor is the cost to the counties for maintaining roads and emergency services to the properties.
And worst of all, the primary beneficiary of the endowment funds, our schools, will take the greatest hit. As property taxes climb, school supplemental levies will be impossible to pass. Community growth in timber-based counties will dry up as property tax rates soar. Rural schools, already struggling to keep teachers and young families, would be in danger of falling further behind.
If the Idaho Land Board wants to make investments that will benefit Idaho and Idahoans, they should explore creative solutions to ensure a return on investment that won’t further divide our counties into “winners” and “losers.”
For instance, we are separating Idaho families by shipping our prison overflow out of state. The land board could finance construction of a new prison in Idaho and employ Idahoans to operate it. Small businesses are the backbone of our communities. The land board could invest in technology parks or business incubators to help Idaho entrepreneurs succeed. Idaho does a great job of managing our public lands. If we must invest in timber land, let’s purchase federal lands already off the tax rolls.
I encourage the Idaho Land Board to consider a reinvestment strategy that fulfills its constitutional obligation and best serves all of our families and Idaho’s future.
Sen. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, is serving her third term in the Idaho House of Representatives.