Scores of targeted campaign contributions most of them below the mandatory reporting threshold have been turned away by top lawmakers, who cited ethical considerations.
Stunned last fall by the Idaho Land Boards cancellation of land swaps involving 69 cabins at Priest and Payette lakes, lot lessees are seeking a remedy this year.
But with letters that accompanied January contributions suggesting that money buys elections and I hope I can buy a little of your attention, some leaseholders have put legislation at risk, said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, whose district includes Priest Lake.
Im really disappointed with what some of the letters have said, Keough said. But I believe folks did this innocently.
Keough is working on a bill to clear the way for land exchanges that could help about 350 leaseholders at Priest Lake in Bonner County, as well as about 140 at Payette Lake in Valley County.
Theyre angry, theyre confused, theyre hurt, they want closure, Keough said. But this is a distraction and it casts a bad light on the folks at the lakes.
DETRIMENTAL TO CAUSE
On Jan. 29, Priest Lake State Lessees Association President Denny Christenson wrote his members saying, Let there be no misunderstanding; your PLSLA Board had absolutely nothing to do with these donations. ... Its unfortunate these donations may result in some legislators forming opinions of Priest Lake lessees in general that are detrimental to your best interests.
Christenson, of Spokane, told the Statesman that hes confident the letters were initiated among the 10 percent of lessees who are not members of his group, though he said some of his members did write lawmakers and make contributions.
Contributions ranged from $10 to $150, lawmakers said, but most were at $49 or $50 just below the $51 limit at which gifts must be itemized on Sunshine reports.
Somebody mustve told them the breaking point is $49, said Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who lives on land he owns at the lake but has neighbors on 11 nearby state lots.
The $49 and $50 contributions troubled Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, a member of the Land Board who oversees Idahos campaign finance disclosure laws.
Though not illegal, Ysursa said, When somebodys sending that stuff around, theyre obviously doing it not to have it disclosed, and that goes against the fiber of the law. I dont think it was a very good public-policy tactic.
Keough and Anderson are working on legislation to loosen what Gov. Butch Otter called a noose around our necks a state law that says exchanges must involve similar lands of equal value, public or private.
Two complex exchanges involving cabin sites and commercial buildings were canceled in October, in part because of that provision, dashing the Land Boards four-year effort to divest itself of the sites for more easily manageable and profitable investments. The sites are a tiny slice of 2.4 million acres of endowment lands benefiting state institutions, principally education, which must be managed to obtain the maximum, long-term return.
Christenson said in his Jan. 29 association newsletter that the denial of the swaps was shocking and maddening after all the effort lessees made to arrange the exchanges. Now he fears letters suggesting that contributions might buy influence could pollute reform efforts.
FAILING SMELL TEST
One Priest Lake leaseholder, Mark Finley, of Spokane, said he doesnt understand the fuss.
Am I supposed to believe that a generic $15 grass-roots campaign donation will actually buy support or the attention of a senator or representative who last election raised $20,000 to $40,000? Finley asked.
But several lawmakers returned the money, including Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg; House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls; Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; and House Assistant Minority Leader Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise.
Burgoyne, a leading critic of some of the Land Boards commercial investments, said he got about 25 contributions and returned them all.
Its probably not unlawful to receive a campaign contribution along with a plea for legislative action, but it didnt pass my smell test, he said.
Davis said he received about a dozen heartfelt letters on an issue that is of great concern to them. He returned the contributions with a letter saying that this contribution appears to be so closely tied to support of a specific legislative result that I am uncomfortable accepting it.
Bedke, who said he received about 30 contributions, returned them all, saying that no financial contribution is necessary to get my attention on this matter.
He added: I am working, and will continue to work, toward an effective and satisfactory solution.
Hill advised his GOP colleagues to return the money, as he did with a letter of explanation.
I am returning your check not because I am not grateful but because I have a personal standard that I do not accept campaign donations during the legislative session or related to specific legislation, Hill wrote. We will seek a speedy and fair resolution.
A PATH TO REFORM?
Keough and Anderson said they kept their checks, which they said didnt include the sort of something for something language others received. They also cited long-term relationships with contributors who have given many times.
These are my neighbors, Anderson said. They have a need for a legislative remedy. Thats no different than the dairymen or my logging friends or my public power friends.
Keoughs Senate Bill 1277, introduced Monday, addresses the similar lands issue, allowing exchanges for land of equal value, regardless of use. Her five co-sponsors include Anderson, Burgoyne and House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, an Ada County lawmaker who has been a critic of Land Board investments in commercial property.
SB 1277 would ban swaps for land that have as their primary value commercial buildings, but would allow swaps for buildings continually used by a public entity for a public purpose.
Although the recent contributions cloud the effort, Keough said there is broad consensus to end the archaic practice of leasing land to the owners of cottages. Cottages in most cases is a misnomer, because many are million-dollar vacation homes with multigeneration emotional connections.
Keough said she hopes openly discussing the returned money will clear the air and the way for reform: We want to be ethical, so its good to have this discussion.
Burgoyne said he thinks the fact that most lawmakers returned the money should allay concerns about money for action.
I dont think it gums it up, he said, because Im assuming other people have handled it as I have.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics