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HB 696: Undermining the AG – IDL V3.0 – 2022

Summary: HB 118 would strip the Attorney General of his role as chief legal advisor to the Land Board and Department of Lands.

ICL's position: Oppose

Current Bill Status: Dead

Issue Areas: Attorney General, Grazing, Idaho Department of Lands, Phosphate Mining, Public Lands

Official Legislative Site

Rep. Megan Blanskma (R- Hammett) and Sen. Mark Harris (R-Soda Springs) introduced House Bill 696, which seeks to strip the Idaho Attorney General (AG) of his role as legal advisor to the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL). The AG would retain their seat on the Land Board, but Deputy Attorney Generals (DAGs) would be dismissed and private counsel hired instead. Senate Bill 1372, also introduced by Sen. Harris replaces HB 696.

The bill is virtually identical to two measures that failed to advance during the 2021 session (HB118 and SB 1090). Unfortunately for the sponsors, SB 1090 died after a hearing in the Senate Resources Committee, and HB 118 was never considered by the Senate.

In a legal opinion on the 2021 bills, the AG found that “a court would likely determine that [the] bills violate the Idaho Constitution.”

DAGs currently serve 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. In the past year, the Legislature has spent over $1.1 million on legal fees to just one lawyer, who charges $470/hour, a far cry from the $250/hour that Rep. Blanksma and Sen. Harris estimate in HR 696 fiscal estimate.

Some of the concerns from the mining and ranching interests that are pushing the bill include concerns over HB 547, a bill that passed in 2020. 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 lays out many of these constitutional concerns.

Separately, the cattlemen and ranching interests are concerned that they could lose access to 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. The Attorney General supported efforts to increase that rate in October 2021, and this bill appears to be seeking revenge.