BOISE - For the past three months, one of Republican Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s departments has been headed by a Democrat and overseen by a majority-Democrat commission.
It’s the state Tax Commission, which is constitutionally required to have four commissioners, with not more than two of them from the same party. But since GOP commission Chairman Bob Geddes resigned in February, Democratic Commissioner David Langhorst has been the interim chairman, and the fourth commission seat remains vacant.
“David Langhorst is doing a great job right now,” said Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian. “We have not named anybody else at the moment; he’s continuing to serve in that capacity.”
Langhorst, a former Democratic state senator from Boise whom Otter first appointed to the commission in 2009, said, “I’m honored that the governor would pick someone from the other party to be the interim chair.”
He said when Geddes left, he encouraged Langhorst and GOP Commissioner Rich Jackson to make their cases to the governor on why they should be interim chairman. Langhorst focused on two goals: Improving employee morale and improving public confidence, and got the nod.
Jackson had just joined the commission last July. The other commissioner is Democrat Tom Katsilometes, who’s served since 2005.
Langhorst said, “These positions are public trust positions - they’re not political.”
The Idaho State Tax Commission is an executive agency of the state government, with commissioners appointed by the governor, with the consent of the state Senate, serving six-year terms. It’s charged with administering and enforcing the state’s tax laws, including income, sales and property taxes, and has more than 450 employees.
Before Geddes, the former president pro-tem of the state Senate, was appointed chairman in January of 2011, the commission’s previous chairman, Royce Chigbrow, was embroiled in scandal, including accusations that he used his position to help a friend in a dispute with a former business partner. Chigbrow resigned; an investigation didn’t lead to any charges after prosecutors said a statute of limitations had expired on one complaint, and they found insufficient evidence on two others.
Chigbrow, a Republican, was Otter’s longtime campaign treasurer before Otter appointed him to the state post in 2007.
The Tax Commission also was the target of a whistleblower report from former tax auditor Stan Howland in 2008, charging that secret tax deals were letting influential taxpayers off the hook for millions; by September of 2010, a half-dozen more longtime commission employees had made similar allegations.
Langhorst said he’s been working to make the agency’s operations more transparent, including opening up more of the rule-making process. “We’ve been working hard and making a lot of headway,” he said.
The delay in naming the new appointee is “kind of normal,” said Langhorst, who noted that when he was first appointed, he talked with the governor about the position in December, the seat opened in March, and he was appointed in July.
Hanian said Otter “likes to take the right amount of time, and it’s really not driven by an artificial deadline. I think clearly he wants to examine and make sure that we get the best person for the job.”
Asked what it’s been like to have a majority-Democrat commission overseeing the agency in the Republican Otter Administration, Langhorst said, “It’s so obvious, but it’s the first time I’ve really thought about it that way. It’s really not a political job.”