BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho should reimburse two ranchers for legal costs they spent fighting the federal government for rights to streams and other water bodies that livestock rely on when grazing on federally managed land, a panel of state lawmakers said Thursday.

The House State Affairs Committee passed the proclamation on a voice vote, stating that $600,000 from the Constitutional Defense Fund should go to the Joyce Livestock and Lu Ranching companies to pay them back for the money they spent in the water rights cases more than a decade ago.

Rep. Megan Blanksma, a Republican from Hammett who sponsored the proclamation, said the case set important legal precedent for Idaho livestock owners and protected the state from "incredible federal overreach."

Some committee members voiced concern, however, that actually using those funds to reimburse private companies — no matter how noble their cause — might violate state law.

Proclamations don't carry the weight of law and are more like policy statements. So even if the proclamation is approved by the full Legislature, it will still be up to the four-member Constitutional Defense Council to decide whether or not to give the state funds to the ranchers.

The cases arose in the 1990s when both the ranchers and the federal Bureau of Land Management filed legal claims asserting rights for their livestock to drink from water that flows through non-navigable sources like streams and brooks. Many Idaho ranchers graze their cattle on land managed by the bureau, and the streams serve as natural watering troughs for the animals.

The court battle lasted for years, but in 2007 the Idaho Supreme Court handed down a ruling that said the federal government didn't have the rights to the water because it had no livestock, and so could not put the water to a "beneficial use." Over the last two years, the Legislature has codified many aspects of the ruling into state law.

Despite winning the case, the ranchers were left with legal fees of about $600,000.

Rep. Lynn Luker, a Republican from Boise, said he appreciated the ranchers' work, and was willing to open his own checkbook to help cover their costs. But he said he was concerned that it would be illegal for the Constitutional Defense Fund to reimburse the ranchers for a case that was decided years ago.

"I am extremely sympathetic to the situation because they've done a great service to the state," Luker said. "The Constitutional Defense Fund is there in my mind to defend what this body does, and that's how we've justified that to the public."

The Idaho Supreme Court has typically interpreted state law to hold that public funds should only be spent for public purposes.

Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane didn't attend the committee meeting but afterward did send an email to some lawmakers who asked about the legality of the matter. In the email, he said recent court case law says that if a plaintiff is pursuing a legal case to protect their own economic interests, they can't claim to be doing it as a representative of the public interest — even if the ruling substantially benefits the public.

The Constitutional Defense Fund was created in 1995 to defend the state's legal rights against the federal government. Members of the Constitutional Defense Council, which oversees the fund, include Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill.


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