June 29, 2012 in Idaho

Senator challenges mansion budget vote

Panel member says public didn’t get enough notice
John Miller Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

A flag flies over the vacant Idaho governor’s mansion in Boise on Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – A Democratic senator contends Idaho officials violated public meetings laws with a hasty email vote this week on the $177,400 budget to cover landscaping, mowing and watering the expansive lawn below the vacant Idaho governor’s mansion.

Sen. Les Bock of Garden City sits on the Governor’s Housing Committee, which oversees the hilltop mansion in Boise. He said Thursday the committee’s budget vote didn’t give the public adequate notice to consider whether the spending plan was appropriate.

The five-member panel voted 3-2 on Tuesday to spend the money for fiscal year 2013, with Bock and Democratic Rep. Phylis King of Boise opposing it. Voting in favor were Teresa Luna, director of the Department of Administration, and Boise Republicans Sen. Chuck Winder and Rep. Max Black.

With this latest dust-up, controversy that has surrounded the home nearly since it was given to the state by potato mogul J.R. Simplot in December 2004 continues.

The cost of caring for the home, watering its expansive lawn and replacing the enormous billowing flag that flies above the house when it becomes weather-tattered have drained a maintenance fund to less than $900,000 – only enough to cover the bills for the next five years, unless something is done. Bock contends the email vote, completed with no fanfare or public scrutiny, only delays a hard decision over how to dispose of the house.

“Unless some of us start saying no, and saying no emphatically, this probably could go on indefinitely,” Bock said.

Winder, committee chairman, contends Bock should have first raised the issue of whether the vote was proper with him.

Winder said he scheduled the vote via email to accommodate committee members’ schedules during the summer.

He said that with the start of the fiscal year on July 1, he’d been advised by the Department of Administration, which oversees the house, that a speedy vote was necessary. If there was a procedural problem with the vote, however, Winder said he would figure out a way to redo it.

“I’m disappointed that Les Bock chose to go to the media rather than talk to me as the chairman about his concern,” Winder said. “I see this as very political and divisive.”

The house, on a massive grassy expanse in north Boise, has been something of an albatross for Idaho since Simplot’s gift eight years ago. Gov. Butch Otter, Simplot’s former son-in-law, has declined to live in the mansion, preferring his ranch west of Boise.

The Governor’s Housing Committee is one of the few state panels with authority to set the house’s budget with little input from the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee budget-writing panel.

In light of the email vote, however, Bock has asked Capitol bill drafters to draw up a measure to return authority to the Legislature. The earliest that would get debate is 2013.

Winder said it’s Bock’s prerogative to ask for a bill, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary.

“I personally think it’s OK the way it is,” Winder said.

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