BOISE - The Idaho House has backed a new $200,000 fund for the Legislature to hire its own outside lawyers, despite protests that lawmakers already have the Attorney General and that the new fund would be a political “slush fund.”
The vote was 53-16; all House Democrats and three House Republicans, including Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, opposed the bill.
The new fund would be controlled by the speaker of the House and the president pro-tem of the Senate, who are the top political leaders of the Legislature.
“It is for any time that they should happen to need outside legal counsel,” House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told the House.
Minority Democrats spoke out against the bill. “We already have a constitutionally elected officer in an office that handles these matters, and so we pay for that,” said Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise. “So to have duplicative efforts like this definitely represents a growth of government, and I don’t think it’s prudent.”
Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, debated in favor of the bill, HB 695. “I think as the lawmaking body we ought to have flexibility in where we’re going to go to get a legal opinion,” Hart told the House. “I think this is very much needed.”
Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said, “We need to have our own counsel, not relying on the executive branch to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong.” He said he believes the Legislature’s use of the Attorney General’s services is an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, called the measure a “slush fund” for the majority’s political concerns, and pointed to last year’s fight over bills seeking to “nullify” federal laws that the Attorney General said were unconstitutional. That prompted a push for the Legislature to get its own legal counsel.
Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, said he saw a conflict of interest in the Attorney General’s office when he proposed legislation regarding investments by the state Land Board, on which the Attorney General serves. “I think there are situations that do arise with a conflict of interest,” he said.
The bill, which earlier cleared the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote, now moves directly to the full Senate. It was requested by House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and surfaced just last week, in the final days of this year’s Idaho legislative session.