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A kiss for Valentine, but budget looking less rosy…

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is giving his budget presentation to lawmakers this morning, but first, JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, noted that a special guest of his, wife Tracey, is in the audience. Wasden pulled out a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses, and said, “In that vein, I brought some roses for my valentine.” Tracey came forward to accept the roses from her husband with a kiss, as Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Meridian, asked to laughter, “Is that a budgeted item?”

Wasden's budget presentation was less rosy. His office has 25 vacancies out of 207 positions - 19 of those lawyer positions - “and we could be facing more,” he said. Since 2009, his budget has been cut by nearly $2.4 million, “almost all of which is personnel.” Yet, legal work hasn't decreased, and big cases loom, including fighting tobacco industry attempts to withhold or cut the millions in tobacco settlement payments Idaho is receiving each year, and the state's challenge of the national health care reform law, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court March 26. Wasden said his office brought in more than $42 million last year in legal settlements. “As you can see, your lawyers continue to deliver,” he said. But, he warned, “My office cannot retain attorneys in the face of offers from other state agencies.”

In the past year, he's lost two lawyers to other state agencies for big pay boosts. Lawyers who leave the AG's office for the private sector get an average raise of 50 percent. “Retention and recruitment are virtually impossible without a meaningful effort to address salaries,” Wasden said.

He's proposing three steps to stop furloughs and layoffs in his office: Fully funding his $400,000 fiscal year 2013 budget request to refill those vacant positions; continuing to allow his office lump-sum authority to shift funds where needed; and extending interagency billing authority to allow agencies to be billed for additional attorneys; that's been a success already for two attorney positions to do work for the Transportation Department and two for the Department of Health & Welfare. However, Wasden said those steps won't address the salary issue.

“Just a couple of weeks ago, we interviewed an attorney we wanted to hire. He withdrew his application after learning that he would have to take a 50 percent pay cut in order to work in our office. This is not the exception, but the rule,” Wasden said. Attorneys with “significant legal experience” make far more elsewhere, he said.  “This office should not continue to be the training ground for private firms that they will then use to turn around and sue you.”


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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