Idaho seeks dismissal of lawsuit over virus rescue money


BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A lawsuit filed by an Idaho county against Republican Gov. Brad Little and other state officials that could upend plans for distributing $1.25 billion in coronavirus rescue money should be dismissed, state attorneys said.

The attorney general’s office in documents filed last week said Bonner County’s lawsuit seeking to have the money distributed based on population is “misguided and legally flawed.”

“The United States Treasury permits states to direct payments on a discretionary basis for an obvious reason: not all areas have been equally impacted by COVID-19,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Leslie M. Hayes.

Congress and President Donald Trump in March approved the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Idaho received $1.25 billion, a significant sum for the state that in the fiscal year that just ended generated a little over $4 billion in revenue.

State officials have tied allocations to government entities to payroll expenses for first responders as a way to reduce property taxes. In addition, to receive rescue money, cities and counties cannot increase their property tax budgets by the allowed 3% next year or use any balance from previous years.

Eleven of Idaho’s 44 counties have signed on, as have more than 30 cities, including Sandpoint, the county seat for Bonner County. About $125 million will be distributed.

Because Bonner County didn’t sign up, its “claims are moot due to the county’s own decisions and inaction,” Hayes wrote.

In the lawsuit, Bonner County said the relief act doesn’t allow use of the rescue money except as needed to deal with the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus. The county also contends the act doesn’t “impose any further restrictions on how the funds may be used by their recipients.”

The county said the state has only allocated $282 million to local governments through various avenues. But the lawsuit said the state is actually required to distribute 45% of the $1.25 billion to local governments, which would require Idaho to distribute about $560 million to local governments based on population.

Scott Bauer of the Bonner County prosecutor’s office didn’t return a call Tuesday seeking comment.

The governor’s office in a news release touted Little’s plan to distribute the $125 million, saying a majority of Idaho property taxpayers will benefit under the program.

“Our focus is to support our communities and our police, fire and EMS personnel and ensure there are no reductions in public safety during these unprecedented challenges,” Little said in a statement.

The state’s largest cities have signed up, as has Ada County, the state’s most populous county.

Little set up a financial advisory committee responsible for using the rescue money to support businesses, health care providers, schools and struggling families during the pandemic. Most of the money has been allocated.