BOISE – Four Republican legislators from Southern Idaho didn’t have to pay their own airfares to attend the recent state GOP convention in Sandpoint because they attended a legislative meeting in North Idaho that conveniently concluded the day before the convention.
State rules permit lawmakers on state-paid trips to take side trips at their own expense. But minority Democrats on the committee, whose own state party convention was at the same time as the Republicans’ but was 400 miles south in Boise, had to scramble.
“I think we are on the edge of what would be considered ethical when the timing allows them to have used state resources to get where they need to be,” said state Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who attended the North Idaho meeting of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee last week, then headed quickly to Boise for her own state party convention. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that it was purposely scheduled that way.”
State Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who helped plan the JFAC interim meeting, said the timing was a coincidence. “It did coincide, but it wasn’t, I don’t think, intentional,” she said. “It was after the primaries and it was before most folks start out to do their summer vacations. I think it was a convenience, when most of the committee could be there.”
House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. That’s a way to help people get to the convention.”
Four GOP members from Southern Idaho – co-chairs Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and Sens. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, and Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls – attended both the two-day JFAC tour of North Idaho and the Sandpoint GOP convention.
“That date really worked for everybody, best for all of us,” said Bell.
She said the joint budget committee is required by state law to hold two interim committee meetings a year, and it rotates locations around the state. The North Idaho Panhandle and the Pocatello area were up for this year; the panel decided to head north this month and hold a Pocatello meeting in the fall.
The last JFAC interim meeting in the Panhandle was in the Sandpoint area in October 2005. Before that, the joint committee toured the Post Falls-Coeur d’Alene area in September 2003, and Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry in June 1999.
“It would have happened whether there’d been a convention up there or not,” Bell said. “We were in rotation.”
She noted that the committee’s non-partisan staff put together the schedule, which included tours of the proposed Coeur d’Alene education corridor, highway projects funded by state bonds, a Wallace school and a Plummer health clinic. The committee also heard legislative audit reports and received updates on the state budget and revenue outlook.
Cameron, Bair and Richardson couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. House Chief Fiscal Officer Terri Franks-Smith confirmed that state travel guidelines permit separately funded side trips like their visits to the party convention.
Bell noted in her travel expense voucher for the trip that she was “not on state business” during the two days of the trip that she attended the party convention. “When I turned in my expenses, I was very careful to note that there was a spot in the middle that had nothing to do with the state,” she said.
Bell said she rode the bus back to the airport with the group at the end of the meeting, then rented a car and drove up to Sandpoint for the convention. Several GOP committee members from Southern Idaho went on the JFAC tour and then flew home, without attending the party convention. Several other committee members who attended both events are from North Idaho, and therefore didn’t have to fly to get to either event.
Jaquet said she thought those who benefited from state-paid airfare while attending a party convention should have paid for their own return tickets. “I would’ve suggested that they at least pay for half of it,” she said. “I do think it’s a gray area. I think if you’re going to try to make sure that people don’t have the wrong perception about a Republican-controlled state where basically the Republicans get to do whatever they darn well please, that they should be watching what they do.”