Idaho land board approves adding more advisers, auditors

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's five-member land board formalized how it vets investments made on the state's 2.5 million acres of endowment lands —which provides funding primarily to public schools— during Monday's meeting.

The board unanimously approved establishing new advisers, auditors and outside consultants over the next two years to improve independent oversight.

It was the last major decision the board finalized before Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Secretary of State Ben Ysursa will be replaced by their recently elected successors. Luna had served on the board for eight years, while Ysursa had served for 12 years.

Included in the new measures is a formalized position that the board will no longer acquire commercial buildings. Instead, they will look to procure more timberlands, which are considered a more valuable investment based on a report drafted by consulting firm Callan Associates.

The board's previous involvement in commercial property, such as purchasing a storage company, sparked outrage within Idaho's dominant Republican Party. Critics claimed the panel shouldn't compete with private businesses. The board countered that Idaho's constitution demands that they do whatever they can to maximize revenue on endowment lands.

The issue briefly died down in February after the board voted to suspend buying commercial properties in February, but it remained a hot topic throughout the election season. For example, Secretary of State-elect Lawerence Denney —who attended Monday's meeting— was an outspoken critic of the board investing in commercial properties throughout his campaign before securing a win in November's election.

The board also decided Monday that it would delegate more routine land management decisions to the Idaho Department of Lands and would focus on making higher level policy decisions.

In total, it will cost more as much as $600,000 to implement the recommendations per year to implement all the changes.

"These dollars to public schools provide us the opportunity to go a little above and beyond," said Luna, while reflecting on the board's impact on Idaho's educational system. "The extra $32 million to $34 million a year provides a lot to Idaho students."

Luna has long been an advocate of increasing endowment payments to public schools. Earlier this year, he argued that flat payments from the trust's endowments have failed to keep up with inflation and overall enrollment growth in schools throughout the state. His proposal, however, received no support from the remaining board members.

Luna's successor and political newcomer, Sherri Ybarra, was not at Monday's meeting.

The Idaho Land Board is made up of the governor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, attorney general and state controller, which manages endowments lands as well as $1.6 billion in stocks and bonds. In 2013, the land trust distributed $47.5 million to state funds, where $31.3 million went to Idaho's public schools.

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