BOISE – This year’s race for state controller is guaranteed to give Idaho its first-ever female state controller, as two women – Republican Donna Jones and Democrat Jackie Groves Twilegar – are facing off for the position.
Jones is a former state legislator, a businesswoman, and current director of the Idaho Real Estate Commission. Twilegar is a financial manager who’s worked in corporate finance, banking, real estate and investments.
State Controller Keith Johnson, a CPA, is giving up the job in an unsuccessful bid for Congress, which ended in defeat in a six-way GOP primary election in May.
The controller is not a high-profile elected official, but the $82,500-a-year job is key: The controller is the state’s chief fiscal officer and has one of the five votes on the state Land Board, the panel that controls state lands and endowments. The controller also oversees state payroll, financial management and accounting systems, and manages the state’s central computer center.
It’s a position elected statewide with a four-year term.
Jones said she’s running for controller “because I can do the job.”
“I didn’t get into politics to change the world – I got into politics to make the world a little bit better place for my children and grandchildren,” she said. “I have a pretty deep passion for Idaho. … This is a job I can do and I’m excited to do it.”
Twilegar said she’s running because “my background is finance and I have a desire to serve that I’ve demonstrated in the community on a smaller scale. I’ve looked at the cynicism of younger people when it comes to politics, and I think, if good people won’t run, then where are we?”
Twilegar sees big challenges in store for the controller’s office, especially in technology. “The hardware and the software is aging,” she said. “They’re going to need some major software improvements.”
She also sees challenges ahead for the Land Board, “as it, kicking and screaming, enters the 21st century.”
The Land Board manages two assets, its endowment investment portfolio and state lands. In 2000, after voters OK’d a constitutional amendment, the state began investing its endowment funds in the stock market, which then crashed. The fund lost a large chunk of its value.
“They’ve only just five years later broken even,” Twilegar said. “I think most people have probably done better than that in their IRAs.” One problem, she said, was that the board invested too quickly. “They knew they were missing the boat in the bull market of the ‘90s. They rushed in and dumped all that money into the market in three months.”
That, she said, violated a “cardinal rule of investing that you average into the market” by investing over time to compensate for short-term ups and downs. “If they had done a longer-term buy-in into the market, they still would’ve lost money, because the market continued to slide for a year and a half, but they wouldn’t have lost as much.”
Twilegar sees comparable future problems developing with the state’s endowment lands, as lands long managed for timber, grazing or mining fall into the path of development – when the state’s land staff expertise is focused on traditional industries. “Who’s going to review those projects? Who’s going to decide the structure of those transactions to benefit the schools?” she asked, adding, “The controller should be the financial resource to the Land Board.”
Earnings from Idaho’s endowment lands and funds go largely to the state’s public schools.
Jones said she believes her real estate experience will be an asset to the Land Board. “I’ve had a broker’s license since 1983,” she said. “I understand land use. I know I have something to offer there with my background.”
But Jones noted that the Land Board is chaired by the governor, and said she’d just be a member of the team. “It’s not going to be, ‘Donna Jones runs in there and is the star of the show,’ ” she said. “My philosophy would be that our public lands are open and productive.”
Asked what she hopes to accomplish if elected, Jones said, “There is no big overriding goal of something I want to accomplish.”
She added, “I’m not going to turn everything upside down. From what I’ve heard, Keith runs a pretty good shop.”
Jones backed out of a live, televised debate that had been scheduled between the two candidates on Idaho Public Television – the only debate of the campaign. “It just didn’t work into my schedule,” she said. “I truly believe I can reach more people by hitting the streets and hitting the state than I can in one televised debate.”
Twilegar bemoaned the lack of a debate. “I think it’s demeaning to the responsibilities of the controller, and I think it’s demeaning to the voters to say she’s too busy,” Twilegar said. “The issue of qualifications, I think, would be really apparent if we actually were on the screen at the same time.”
Jones said she has nothing against Twilegar. “This is a smart lady who has an MBA,” she said. “I realize that, she’s very sharp.” But, she said, “I have government experience. I’ve served 12 years in the Legislature. … I’ve spent the last eight years as a state agency manager. … It’s my actual, on-the-job experience.”