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HB 696: Undermining the Attorney General – 2022

Summary: House Bill 696 would require the Idaho Department of Lands to hire private legal counsel, instead of relying on the services of the Office of the Attorney General.

ICL's position: Oppose

Current Bill Status: Dead

Issue Areas: Attorney General, Idaho Department of Lands

Official Legislative Site

Rep. Megan Blanskma (R- Hammett) and Sen. Mark Harris (R-Soda Springs) introduced House Bill 696, seeking to strip the Idaho Attorney General (AG) of his role as chief legal advisor to the Idaho Department of Lands and the Idaho Land Board. The AG would retain their seat on the Land Board, but would no longer represent the board as counsel. The Deputy Attorney Generals (DAGs) would be dismissed and private council hired instead.

The bill is similar to three failed measures from the 2021 session that failed, but were analyzed in an Attorney General’s 2021 Attorney General’s opinion. The AG found that “a court would likely determine that [all three] bills violate the Idaho Constitution.” In addition, five former Idaho Attorneys General (several who served on the Idaho Supreme Court) convened an organization arguing that, with these and other bills, the Idaho Legislature “threatens the integrity of the Idaho Constitution…[and we will] use every legal avenue to oppose it.

DAGs currently serves as counsel to most state agencies, including IDL, and the AG reviews qualifications and brings in outside counsel if needed. The hourly rate for these deputies is ~$58/hour. It’s an efficient system to provide legal advice and, while ICL does not always agree with the State of Idaho’s legal interpretations, many attorneys have served their agencies well for decades.

In contrast, the Idaho Legislature regularly contracts with private lawyers, oftentimes in cases related to natural resources. Between 2020-21, the Legislature spent over $1.1 million on legal fees to just one lawyer, who charged $470/hour, a far cry from the $250/hour that Rep. Blanksma and Sen. Harris estimate in HB 118’s Fiscal Note estimate.

Some of the concerns from the mining and ranching interests that are pushing the bill include concerns over HB 547 that passed in 2020 through the legislature. It allowed for preferential rights for mining leases and automatic extensions that sell Idaho Endowment Land beneficiaries short. In a letter from IDL to the Idaho Mining Association, Director Miller laid out many of these constitutional concerns. Separately, the cattlemen and ranching interests are concerned that they would lose access to their below-market grazing rates, which many argue do not meet Idaho’s constitutional requirement to maximize financial returns over the long term. The current $6.86 rate per animal unit month has resulted in a $600,000 reduction in revenue to the endowment, and it doesn’t appear to satisfy the constitution.