BOISE – Idaho’s state Land Board has paid more than a quarter-million dollars since 2007 to one of the state’s top Republican operatives for a public relations campaign, but officials say the state’s getting a great deal.
“We’re very happy with the results so far,” said Lands Department Director George Bacon.
Mike Tracy’s one-man PR firm has developed a DVD about state endowment lands, scheduled dozens of presentations by Tracy or state officials to everything from school boards to Rotary clubs, and commissioned two polls to track how much Idahoans know about the state endowment and how they view it.
Since it first signed a contract with Tracy in October 2007, the Land Board has paid him $279,009, according to records obtained under the Idaho Public Records Act. That includes the cost of polling and the DVD. Tracy’s contract is set at $85,000 per year, and includes a $4,000 per month contract fee.
“I think Mike’s done a good job,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who serves on the Land Board along with the governor, the attorney general, the state superintendent of schools and the state controller. “I think we’re getting our bang for the bucks.”
When the board voted 3-0 to renew Tracy’s contract last month for another year, two members – Gov. Butch Otter and state Controller Donna Jones – disclosed potential conflicts because Tracy worked on their re-election campaigns, but still voted in favor.
In fact, Tracy’s state contract is dwarfed by his campaign work. According to state campaign finance records, various state campaigns have paid him $1.3 million since 2006, including $1.09 million just from Otter’s 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial campaigns.
Bacon said the department’s deputy director, Kathy Opp, was asked to find a firm to take on the public relations contract, and she talked with several but only Tracy was interested.
He confirmed that. “Because the contract was for less than $100,000, essentially the other agencies weren’t interested in talking to her,” said Tracy, former communications director for Sen. Larry Craig.
Bacon said the Department of Lands cut its public information officer in the early 2000s. “It looked like doing a private-sector contract for those kinds of services would be better … we could tailor it to meet our needs, which probably wouldn’t be full-time, and yet you could have a professional who knew the business,” he said.
Tracy estimates he works 20 to 35 hours a week on the contract.
Ysursa said it’s been an “eternal struggle” in Idaho to explain the complicated nature of the state’s endowment lands – that they were granted to Idaho at statehood to be held in trust, with their earnings to benefit specific trust beneficiaries, the largest of which is public schools.
In 2008, Tracy commissioned a statewide poll conducted by Moore Research of Portland that found that 58 percent of Idahoans had heard of the Land Board and 28 percent knew what it did. A year later, after numerous presentations and showings of the DVD, a follow-up poll found that 69 percent had heard of the Land Board and 35 percent knew what it did.
No polling was done in the last year, as the Department of Lands tried to conserve funds; the state spent only $69,052 under the contract, but more is planned in the coming year. The Land Board renewed its contract with Tracy last month, with the expectation that in addition to the $85,000 contract, there would be $34,000 in expenses for polling, DVD reproduction, annual report printing and other expenses.
Tracy said his Land Board contract is his only state contract. His firm also represents private-sector clients, associations and political campaigns.