It was a big win for Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. And for purists who read the Idaho Constitution literally.
Wasden convinced the Idaho Supreme Court’s five justices to junk a 1990 law that short-circuited competitive bidding on state-owned cabin sites on Priest and Payette lakes.
In retrospect, the Supreme Court’s decision seems like a no-brainer. The state Constitution provides unflinching instructions for managing Idaho’s 2.5 million acres of endowment lands. The five elected officials on the state Land Board are supposed to “secure the maximum long-term financial return” for endowment beneficiaries.
How could a law — written and devised to allow leaseholders to hang onto their cabin sites without having to deal with competitive bidding — not run afoul of that section of the constitution?
Nonetheless, this question came to a head only because Wasden, a Land Board member, took the unusual step of suing the board. This was an amicable debate, given the board’s one-party makeup, but the adversarial legal process only illustrates the politics inherent in Land Board decisions.
The constitution’s language — its clarion call for maximum long-term financial benefit — allows no room for political meddling.
Which is exactly why this language ties the state’s decisionmakers in knots, time and time again.
The constitution doesn’t authorize a “loyalty discount” to families that have held lakeside cabin leases for decades — even if, for legislators and Land Board members, this may be the path of least political resistance.
The constitution didn’t allow Land Board members to favor traditional ranching operations over grazing opponents. That’s why the Supreme Court repeatedly sided with Jon Marvel, the Hailey architect and outspoken public lands grazing critic who used the auction process to price ranchers off of state endowment leases. After more than a decade of legal battles, the 2010 Legislature adopted rules designed to allow environmental and recreation groups to compete for leases on grazing lands.
The constitution also puts the state in the awkward but inevitable position of allowing commercial operations on endowment properties. That includes, for example, Affordable Self Storage, a Boise business acquired by the state in 2010. The House passed a bill designed to force the state to unload the storage facility, but it stalled in the Senate.
The constitution can be a troublesome little document.
Of course, legislators don’t have to content themselves with nibbling around the edges — doing a favor for some squeaky-wheel cabin lessees or trying to pawn off a storage facility. There’s nothing stopping legislators from going all-in and trying to ditch the “maximum long-term financial return” language altogether.
I’m not making a prediction, and I’m certainly not making a recommendation. I’m just throwing it out there for the sport of it.
It’d be a fun show, especially since public schools are the primary beneficiary of Idaho’s grazing, timber and commercial holdings. Would lawmakers dare to be seen as taking money from school kids? As Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones wrote in
Friday’s cabin lease ruling, “The state’s endowment lands are part of a sacred trust reserved for the benefit of Idaho’s public schools and public institutions.”
Last week, this “sacred trust” got an assist from five purists in jurists’ robes.