BOISE – Idaho is one of just six states with no governor’s mansion, and a state committee decided Monday to continue paying a $4,500-a-month housing stipend to the governor until that changes.
Idaho’s last experience with a governor’s mansion was a roller-coaster ride of unfulfilled hopes and ballooning expenses. The family of the late J.R. Simplot donated his landmark hilltop mansion to the state for use as a new governor’s mansion in 2004. But no governor ever moved in. First, it needed extensive renovations; then, once it was ready, current Gov. Butch Otter, who is Simplot’s ex-son-in-law, declined to live there, staying instead at his ranch in Star.
Eventually, with maintenance costs for the vast lawns of the hilltop home rapidly depleting the state’s mansion fund, the donated home was returned to the Simplot family in 2013. It was demolished in January.
The previous governor’s mansion, an older home in North Boise, was sold in 1990 after the home had deteriorated and governors declined to live there. The $221,200 from the sale of the house combined with a $778,000 appropriation from the state’s Permanent Building Fund created a Governor’s Residence Account, with $1 million dedicated to housing for the governor – either for a housing allowance or to build a new mansion.
It’s from that fund that Idaho governors began receiving a housing stipend, starting with Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in 1999.
Otter, a multimillionaire, received the stipend until 2009, when the Simplot house became available to him, even though he didn’t move in. He then started receiving it again in June 2013 when the house went back to the Simplots.
The balance in the fund is now down to $543,758. It earned $7,709 in interest last year, but with the monthly housing stipend adding up to $54,000 a year, it’s being drawn down.
“I don’t think it’s indefinite, because circumstances change,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, chairman of the Governor’s Housing Committee. “There’ll be a new governor in two years. We don’t know what they’ll want to do.”
Still, said Winder, the fund “will spend it down pretty quickly.” Alternatives include asking the Legislature for more money at some point, he said, or actually moving to get the state a new official governor’s residence.
Idaho has a 15-acre property in the Boise foothills with a view of the Capitol that’s long been dedicated for that purpose, and various plans have been drawn up since 1988 to build a new mansion there, but they’ve never gone forward. Under the terms of the state’s acquisition of the property, if the land isn’t used for either a governor’s residence or a public park, it’ll revert back to the federal government.
Downsides of the property for a governor’s mansion location include access from a narrow residential street and two gullies running through the potential building site. Winder said Monday that he’s been talking with the city of Boise about a potential park.
But he said a future governor might be from outside the Boise area and need a home. “To have a residence here would probably be beneficial,” he said.
In the meantime, “We’re in a holding pattern.”
Though the million-dollar fund is being whittled away, Winder said, “The money’s still going to the proper use it was intended.”