BOISE – For more than three decades, Idaho has struggled with the issue of a governor’s mansion, ever since then-Gov. Cecil Andrus refused to live in the deteriorating Boise home the state had provided since 1947.
Billionaire J.R. Simplot’s donation to the state of his hilltop mansion in 2004 seemed to end the dilemma, as it was donated specifically to be Idaho’s official residence for future governors. But no Idaho governor has ever lived there, and lawmakers’ patience is wearing thin over the maintenance costs for the 36-acre grassy, hilltop spread – an estimated $177,400 for the next year, including $80,000 in grounds maintenance and $40,000 for electricity.
“I just think that the idea of a governor’s mansion in general is wrong,” said state Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, who’s pushing to sell off the property. “We have a different perception of these kind of perks than we used to.” Bock said his constituents have been clear: “It’s just the sort of thing that … just drives them absolutely nuts.”
All but five states provide official residences for their governors, and most, like Washington’s, are historic properties laden with tradition and close or adjacent to the state Capitol.
Washington’s red-brick, white-pillared Georgian-style mansion sits on the crest of Capitol Point in Olympia, with a panoramic view of the Capitol grounds, the water and the mountains.
It’s housed Washington governors and their families since 1908, but was becoming decrepit by the early 1970s. Then-first lady Nancy Evans established a foundation to raise funds to furnish and preserve the mansion, and lawmakers anted up for remodeling and expansion. It now serves as both a private home for the governor and family and a site for official functions, public tours and art exhibits.
“This is the people’s home, now and always,” Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire declared at the mansion’s centennial celebration in 2008. “The Washington state Governor’s Mansion embodies nothing less than the history of our state.”
Idaho’s path has been rockier. After Andrus opted to live in his own Boise foothills home and the former governor’s residence was sold, Idaho became the sixth state with no official residence for its governor. But state law required that the governor be provided with housing – an idea promoted as ensuring that a governor could be elected from anywhere in the far-flung state and easily settle into Boise to govern.
When the former governor’s home, which had such outdated features as the first-floor bathroom opening directly off the kitchen, was sold, the $221,200 in proceeds were put into a fund for a new one, along with a legislative appropriation to bring the fund up to $1 million. Lawmakers tapped $778,800 from the state’s permanent building fund, acquired land with a view of the Capitol and commissioned architectural plans for a new mansion.
Gov. Phil Batt, who followed Andrus into office, said he had no interest in a mansion, but lawmakers were aghast when he and the first lady moved into a small apartment that forced them to go to a laundromat to wash clothes. They debated buying an official governor’s condo downtown or offering a pricey living allowance, but a disgusted Batt, famous for his frugality, bought his own southeast Boise home and vetoed the allowance.
Not to be put off, the Legislature decided to buy Batt’s home, proclaiming that it had the answer to the dilemma: The governor’s residence fund, which had by then grown to $1.5 million with interest earnings, would become a revolving home-purchase account. If a future governor didn’t like the home Batt had picked, the state would sell it and purchase another.
Complications quickly arose. Batt’s home was too modest for official state entertaining, and when he left office the former governor sought to buy it back. But then state property sales rules got in the way, and Batt essentially was booted out of the home, which then was sold anyway.
At that point, Idaho began paying a hefty housing allowance. Current Gov. Butch Otter, a multimillionaire, received $4,500 a month for staying at his expansive ranch a few miles outside Boise until 2009, when the Simplot house was declared ready for occupancy.
However, Otter declined to live there. The ex-son-in-law of the late Simplot, he preferred remaining at his ranch. So the monthly payments ended, and the Simplot mansion, rechristened the “Idaho House,” has been used since then for occasional events, receptions and meetings.
Simplot’s distinctive Mediterranean-style home is a Boise landmark, standing by itself atop a startlingly green hill that protrudes from Boise’s otherwise brown foothills. But the 1979 home was built specifically for Simplot and his wife; though it has 7,400 square feet, including a large multipurpose room upstairs with panoramic views, it has only two bedrooms.
“It was basically built as an empty-nester home,” said state Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, current chairman of the Legislature’s Governor’s Housing Committee. “It probably isn’t a real livable residence for a family to be in.”
Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne launched a $3 million private fundraising drive in 2004 to renovate the home and make it suitable for future governors and their families, but it never came near its goal; instead, the donations paid for $310,000 worth of updating and renovations to make the home usable. The donation fund has $164,115 left in it; the former million-dollar governor’s mansion fund has been drawn down to $871,965, largely because of the high maintenance costs for the Simplot spread.
Rep. Phyllis King, D-Boise, said, “To pay $177,000 just to maintain a house I think is outrageous. It’s just way too much money.”
“I don’t think there’s any question in anybody’s mind that this isn’t something we can just let go on and on and on,” agreed state Rep. Max Black, R-Meridian.
When the Governor’s Housing Committee met this week to approve the home’s maintenance budget for next year, several members of the public showed up and offered suggestions, including using the home for interim housing for the homeless, plowing up the expansive, hilly lawn as a firebreak and turning the structure into a potato museum.
The panel agreed to hold a public hearing in September on the future of the mansion before deciding how to proceed.
Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian, said, “It’s entirely up to the committee – whatever they decide, he’s comfortable with.”