The Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) wants to amend the state constitution to give the state more flexibility with selling, leasing, and buying state land. The Senate State Affairs Committee approved introducing the two constitutional amendments Friday, though there’s some concern that lawmakers can approve both amendments in what could be the final week of the session.
“More tinkering to the constitution is necessary given the current economic crisis,” said IDL director George Bacon. “These changes will help us grow as Idaho grows.” The amendments would allow the department, which manages state land, to hold more competitive bidding for leasing and selling lands and work with large private companies that might want to build on state lands. “When the constitution was written, no one envisioned Wal-Mart,” Bacon said. The state could also sell off larger expanses of land. Currently, the Constitution limits buyers to 320 acres of land, or 160 acres of land that’s part of the university endowment. Bacon said some commercial subdivisions top 1,000 acres, and that erasing the limit would put the state on an even footing with private landowners.
“Larger tracts of land are often required for commercially feasible development,” IDL deputy director Kathy Opp told senators Friday. The department said the current limits on managing state lands are costing public schools and other beneficiaries of the state’s public lands. Opp said the state could make 10 to 30 percent more on its land sales and leases if the amendments are approved. The amendments wouldn’t change the state’s primary goal of bringing in more money for schools and other beneficiaries. “We can’t willy-nilly cut sweetheart deals with private companies,” Opp said.
The added flexibility in the proposed amendments would allow the state to delve more into using land for commercial properties. Most state land now is used for timber and grazing. Opp said adding commercial land, and thus diversifying the state’s land portfolio, would lead to more stable profits from land use. She said some state land in the Treasure Valley is being used for commercial purposes. “What we see is the beneficiaries that have commercial assets in their portfolio have much less fluctuation,” Opp said.
The proposed amendments would need the approval of two-thirds of the members of the Idaho Senate and House of Representatives, who are hoping to finish its work by March 26. Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, questioned why the amendments are being introduced now. “It’s a little late in the session to be even considering a constitutional amendment, much less not to have talked about it for the many weeks that we’ve been here,” she said. The Senate State Affairs Committee is planning to hold a full hearing on the amendments Monday. Kelly said that might be too much, too soon. “If we hear this on Monday morning at 8 o’clock, it doesn’t give any of us the due diligence to understand this,” she said. “When we make a change to the constitution, it’s a very serious matter.”
Bacon said IDL has been working on the amendments for a number of years, and was planning to introduce the amendments next year. However, the Land Board Tuesday gave Bacon approval to move on the amendments now. Passing the amendments this year would put them on this November’s ballot, while a delay would push the questions back to 2012. “Waiting another two years is just going to be more lost opportunities,” Bacon said. "We view that as being critically important, especially in line with the current economic situation.”