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Otter vetoes SB 1080 amid conflicts over bill’s funding

BOISE – Changes in Idaho law designed to make sure public corruption and open meeting law violations by county officials are adequately investigated have been vetoed by a governor who actually supports the changes.

Gov. Butch Otter, caught in a spat between House leaders and the state attorney general’s office, vetoed SB 1080 last week because funding for the new program was yanked in a separate bill. “I agree with this legislation’s intent,” Otter wrote in his veto message. “Unfortunately, the decision by the House of Representatives not to take up the … appropriation in SB 1195 makes my veto necessary.”

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden requested the veto, writing to the governor that he asked for the move “with deepest regret.” Without the funding, Wasden wrote, it was “an unfunded mandate.”

Six Canyon County lawmakers banded together to sponsor the bill, in the wake of that county’s experience with disgraced former county Prosecutor John Bujak, whose case has included embezzlement charges and multiple lawsuits, but no convictions. It would have made the attorney general’s office responsible for the preliminary investigations in cases in which county elected officials are accused of criminal or civil offenses or open-meeting law violations rather than the local county prosecutor – who also serves as those officials’ lawyer in their day-to-day work, and thereby has a conflict of interest.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, the bill’s lead sponsor, said, “It will help citizens have greater confidence that things are done right and that problems are resolved appropriately.”

The follow-up appropriation bill, SB 1195, gave the attorney general’s office $212,000 a year to hire an additional attorney and investigator to look into such crimes or violations. It passed the Senate with only one “no” vote – from Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who voted against all appropriation bills – but was pulled from the House floor.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, asked her to pull the bill back to committee. “He said they didn’t need it,” Bell said. “We were perfectly willing to fund what they needed. What he said was they can do it out of their budget.”

Moyle said he worked with several House members to amend SB 1080 in the House to ensure that only the preliminary investigation would be up to the attorney general’s office; after that, the case would be referred back to the county, which would be required to appoint a special prosecutor.

“Once the amendments were made to the bill, it was my understanding that the funding was not necessary,” Moyle said.