Former Sali aide Hoffman: Idaho could be the next Detroit

Idaho Freedom Foundation president Wayne Hoffman, former GOP Congressman Bill Sali’s spokesman during his two years in office, says $26 million in annual federal payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) is a “western welfare program” putting Idaho on the road to ruin.

“Just as many American cities, Appalachia, New Orleans and Detroit have become financially and emotionally vacuous at the hands of federal government subsistence, such could be Idaho’s fate,” Hoffman writes in Monday’s Twin Falls Times-News.

Hoffman doesn’t mention that the Magic Valley, where the Times-News is published, owes its agricultural riches to federal subsidies that built dams and other irrigation works in the desert.

That said, Hoffman’s aim is to support tea party favorite Bryan Smith’s criticism of PILT. Smith is challenging 2nd District GOP Congressman Mike Simpson, who famously threatened to defenestrate Sali when both were members of the Idaho House. Smith, like Sali, has been endorsed by Club for Growth.

Hoffman critiques my column last week and a follow-up blog post about the potential fallout from Smith’s dismissal of the importance of PILT money to counties. I covered Smith’s talk to the Elmore GOP Central Committee, where former Republican County Commissioner  Arlie Shaw noted that Simpson is an important supporter of PILT.

“If we lose that we’re in deep trouble,” Shaw said. “There’s only one place to get that and that’s property tax, or cutting the budget to nothing.”

Said Smith: “I do not see begging for the crumbs from the federal government for land that they already agreed to dispose of and give to the states as a long-term solution. A long-term solution would be for the states to get their lands back.”

Hoffman said Smith’s on target, writing, “Smith argues, accurately, that states are left with a pittance. PILT is a western welfare program. And since reporters, columnists and editorial writers beat up on any politician who questions the sanity of PILT, it’s a form of hush money.”

Hoffman agrees with Smith that the answer is to get the federal government to turn over the 34 million acres of federal land that comprise about 64 percent of Idaho. An interim committee of the Idaho Legislature is exploring that prospect, upon the advice of Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, who led Utah’s effort to demand that the feds turn over the lands. The panel, co-chaired by Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, will meet at the Capitol from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

When states were founded, Congress granted trust lands to the states to help fund public schools and for other purposes. Almost 15 percent of U.S.and mass, or 328 million acres, was given to states.

At statehood in 1890, Idaho received federal grants of 3.65 million acres. The state has retained 2.46 million acres, 2.09 million of those acres managed for the benefit of K-12 education.

The lands are managed by the Idaho Department of Lands and overseen by the Idaho Land Board, which is responsible under the Idaho Constitution for obtaining the “maximum long-term financial return. The 13 beneficiaries: K-12 schools; the University of Idaho, as well as its agricultural and science schools; normal (teacher-training) schools, now Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College; the Capitol; penitentiary; juvenile corrections center; veterans home; mental hospitals at Blackfoot and Orofino; and the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind.

(Disclosure: Hoffman, a former colleague of mine at the Statesman, also calls me a “columnist/reporter/press secretary to the political establishment” and a “leftist” political writer. I don’t consider that my job description or my policy perspective, but I want readers to know I hold no ill-will for Mr. Hoffman. He always tried to write with flourish, a trait I admire.)

Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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