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Idaho Land Board will stick with timberland-buying strategy

by Keith Ridler
| May 19, 2020 2:01 PM

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. Brad Little’s desire to make a significant course change involving a politically charged strategy on how to invest millions of dollars to benefit public schools and other beneficiaries was rejected Tuesday by his fellow members on the Idaho Land Board.

Little’s motion to permanently move $50 million from a fund intended to buy timberland into market investments failed to get a second and died.

“I think it's a mistake to not put more of this into cash assets,” Little said after his motion failed. Among his arguments was that now is a good time to invest in the market when prices are low due to the coronavirus pandemic's financial impact. Another is that timberland has risks with forest fires.

The state buying timberland has drawn fierce opposition from timber companies that complain they can’t compete against the state. County commissioners have also complained that counties lose property tax revenue when the state buys land.

Idaho currently has about $130 million in what’s called the Land Bank fund that's expected to ultimately reach about $240 million. That money is coming from ongoing sales of commercial real estate and residential properties. Those two types of investments have also caused Land Board members to come under fire for competing with private entities.

The $240 million is considered a rare financial windfall for the Land Board. The board is responsible for managing market investments, currently about $2.5 billion, and about 2.5 million acres of state-owned land for the greatest long-term return. The Land Board this fiscal year is expected to generate more than $84 million for distribution.

A financial advisor previously recommended the state invest the $240 million in timberland and farmland, diversifying the state’s portfolio and providing a buffer to ups and downs of financial markets. The Land Board, led by then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, agreed.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, State Controller Brandon Woolf and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, all Republicans, all predate Little on the Land Board and signed onto that strategy.

Little, also a Republican, joined the Land Board when he took office in January 2019, quickly forming a reinvestment subcommittee to examine the strategy. Little, Wasden and a financial expert met five times, with Little and the financial expert voting to put $50 million into financial markets. Wasden opposed the idea.

Wasden on Tuesday, in a written minority opinion, said following the subcommittee's majority recommendation “ignores a fundamental premise of endowment fund reform and the polity of the Land Board to seek out and rely upon expert opinion rather than the ad hoc decisions by elected officials.”

Chris Anton, manager of investments for the endowment fund investment board, took questions from both Little and Wasden probing his thoughts about investing the money in either timberland or the market.

Anton, in general, said now appeared to be a good time to put money in the market unless a second wave of virus infections appeared and caused more economic pain. He noted that as of April 30, more than 40 million people in the U.S. had filed unemployment claims in the last six weeks, implying a jobless rate of 22%. In Idaho during that span, more than 125,000 people have filed unemployment claims.

Woolf said Idaho was fortunate that Land Board investments over the years gave current members an opportunity to even consider such options.

“I think it's a choice between good, better and best,” he said.

Ybarra and Denney didn't comment either for or against the strategy. Denney, before taking office, was a critic of the state owning commercial real estate.