Lawmakers want to restore funding for one deputy attorney general and two investigators cut from the Idaho Attorney General’s office during the economic downturn, to allow the office to respond to requests from counties to take on cases including those involving public corruption. “We’ve had a number of cases … the attorney general had to turn down because they did not have the staff to do it,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, vice-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Bolz proposed the budget motion in JFAC this morning that would fund the positions, at a cost of $300,200 next year; Gov. Butch Otter hadn’t recommended the funding.
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, noted that legislation passed last year to require the attorney general’s office to take such cases, but it was vetoed by the governor at Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s request, after the Legislature didn’t provide any funding. “We supported it last year but didn’t fund it last year,” he said. “To me, it makes sense to fund it this year.”
Bolz’ budget proposal won the joint committee’s support on a 15-5 vote, with Schmidt among those voting no; he was holding out for another motion that included both that funding and another item that Wasden had said is high-priority, for a litigation support assistant. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said without adding that position, “it was indicated the caseload was four times the industry standard.” But because Bolz’ substitute motion passed, the Schmidt-Ringo motion wasn’t taken up.
The budget that JFAC set for the Attorney General’s office reflects a 3.8 percent increase in state general funds next year, up from the governor’s proposal for a 0.2 percent increase. It still needs approval from the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but agency budgets rarely are changed once they’re set by the joint committee.
In his budget pitch to JFAC this year, Wasden said the state is squandering millions by hiring pricey outside attorneys rather than fully staffing his office, and he called for an interim committee to identify opportunities to bring more legal services in-house. JFAC members said they’d like to see the Office of Performance Evaluations conduct a study on how best to do that, and will send a request to the legislative committee that oversees that office.