Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye On Boise

State treasurer’s commuting: Taxable?

The Associated Press today reports a new wrinkle in the controversy over state Treasurer Ron Crane using a state gas card to gas up his personal vehicle for his commutes from Canyon County to the state Capitol: Other state employees who are reimbursed for commuting travel report that benefit as income and pay taxes on it. Crane doesn't. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Treasurer commute raises question: Is it taxable?
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Treasurer Ron Crane's use of state money to gas up his SUV has raised questions over whether his commutes to the Idaho Capitol should be taxed like similar trips are for other state employees.

The Internal Revenue Service considers reimbursements for commuter travel as taxable income, according to federal law. Consequently, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden pays income taxes on his state-funded commute, as do State Tax Commission agents with Idaho-owned cars.

Through his attorney, Crane said he's reviewed his own annual tax filings with his accountant for appropriateness.

"Mr. Crane... does not declare his commuting miles to the statehouse as personal income on a tax return, nor does he take advantage of the deduction available to him for state business-related expenses, which he personally pays," said David Leroy, a former Idaho attorney general representing Crane, on Wednesday. "Instead, he offsets the two."

Leroy declined to elaborate. Income tax records including those of Idaho elected officials like Crane are shielded from public records requests, so exactly how the treasurer treats his taxpayer-funded commuter mileage isn't clear.

An IRS spokeswoman contacted late Wednesday couldn't immediately provide comment.

For months, Crane's office's financial record-keeping has been under scrutiny by legislative auditors, as part of a review every three years. Their findings have been sent to Canyon County prosecutor Bryan Taylor for review, to see if any of Crane's activities constituted a criminal offense.

Taylor has said his review could take weeks; Leroy told the AP this week that he expects the matter will end without charges.

Since selling the treasurer's official vehicle in 2005, Crane has used a state-provided Chevron card to fill up the personal car he drives between his home in Nampa and the Capitol, a roundtrip 50-mile commute, as well as for short personal excursions to the post office, church and the grocery store.

Longer trips, he said, come out of his own pocketbook.

Over the six-year period, Idaho has made vendor payments to Chevron for Crane's gas totaling nearly $16,000, according to state records obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday. Records indicate the last payment was made on Sept. 28, amid auditors' scrutiny.

Crane says he's actually saved taxpayers money — about $32,000 over six years, according to his estimates — by using his personal car, since Idaho no longer has to pay leasing or maintenance expenses.

However, he doesn't keep a detailed record or logbook that shows locations he drove to using gas paid by taxpayers.

Dan John, an analyst at the Idaho State Tax Commission, said other state agencies keep track of their employees' state-funded commutes through Idaho's government expense system and report benefits to tax authorities when required.

State Tax Commission field agents who drive Idaho-owned vehicles to make it easier and quicker to reach clients treat their daily commutes as taxable income, John said.

That's what Wasden does when he drives a state-provided vehicle and uses a state credit card to purchase fuel.

For calendar 2011, for instance, Wasden's taxable fringe benefit for his commuter mileage was $1,510, his office said.

"That appears on his pay stub as taxable income," said Bob Cooper, Wasden's spokesman. "His accountant calculates the number, based on the number of personal miles he drives in the vehicle. Then, he adds about 500 miles, to make sure that it is sufficient."

Over the past year, Crane's office has drawn scrutiny for its use of stretch limousines during annual trips to New York City to meet with financial industry officials.

An AP public records request found documents showing there were sometimes nearly as many relatives on Crane's New York trips as official members, necessitating extra cars for luggage. In 2010, for instance, two vehicles loaded with suitcases cost Idaho taxpayers more than $500.

Crane, who earns $90,000 annually, and others have defended the limousines as an efficient use of taxpayer resources, largely because they can accommodate more passengers and ensure that numerous Idaho officials arrive at meetings together. Crane has since said he will require relatives, who in the past have included his wife and daughter, to pay for ground-transportation expenses incurred because of their presence.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

Follow Betsy online: