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Eye On Boise

Politics over policy? Critics decry bill to put Idaho agency hiring in governor’s hands

Here’s an article from the Idaho Statesman:

By Rocky Barker and Cynthia Sewell

The futures of a storied Idaho park and a planned highway without a dollar to its name have become oddly entangled as one lawmaker tries to bring more control to the governor’s office.

Last month, House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, introduced a bill that would shift the hiring of three state agency directors – Parks and Recreation, Transportation and Correction – from their respective governing boards to the governor. The governor already has the authority to appoint and remove these agencies’ board members, but not their directors.

Shifting the parks position risks the conditions of the Harriman family’s gift of the 11,000-acre Harriman State Parka fly fishing mecca that includes scenic stretches of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, in the shadow of the Tetons.

Shifting the transportation position could politicize millions of dollars of very competitive state and federal road money – evident by recent accusations from local elected officials that Palmer and other lawmakers are “bullying” them in an attempt to fast-track a nearly half-billion-dollar project to connect Idaho 16 (the Emmett Highway) to Interstate 84.

And shifting the corrections position, well, that just might be unconstitutional.

Palmer’s bill is pending before the House under an amending order, which allows the entire House to vote on amendments to the bill.

He said he intends to move forward in the amending process. And he denies that the bill has anything to do with the Idaho 16 project, which he said should be a high state priority.

“We have people who are making $100 million decisions and aren’t elected or accountable to voters,” Palmer said.

Turning directors ‘intensely political’

Palmer at one point planned to take the parks director out of the bill. But this week, he told the Statesman he’s keeping it in.

At issue is the 1961 agreement between Roland and Averell Harriman and the state when the brothers gave the Railroad Ranch to Idaho. It required the Idaho Legislature to create a professionally staffed park service whose personnel were chosen “on the basis of merit alone.”

The agency would control and administer the park “subject to the advice and consent of the governor,” stated the agreement signed by the brothers and Idaho Gov. Robert Smylie. In 1965, the Legislature created the Department of Parks, now known as the Department of Parks and Recreation, and established a six-member board that appointed the director.

That “advice and consent” line means the bill doesn’t violate the agreement “so long as the director is chosen on the basis of merit alone,” wrote Brian Kane, Idaho’s chief deputy attorney general, in a Feb. 26 opinion.

Kane’s analysis of Palmer’s bill also concluded that the transportation board makes state highway decisions, not the director; that the current transportation director is not an at-will employee; and that the Idaho Constitution is actually what places control of the Department of Correction director under the purview of the corrections board.

House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, said the opinion still doesn’t clear up the risk the state could lose control of the park in a lawsuit. He pointed to Kane’s own argument, in another section, about the impact of shifting the transportation job.

“A director appointed by the governor would be required to operate under the direction of the board, but for employment purposes be directly answerable to the governor,” Kane wrote. “The legal reality of this change would be to take a position that is currently politically insulated and make it intensely political, particularly in the event the director must answer to divergent policy choices of the board and the governor.”

“There’s no doubt the bill would politicize the Parks and Recreation position, too,” Erpelding said.

Palmer is more confident. He said Kane’s opinion clears up the legal issue and returns it to one of philosophy. He said he intends to work on amendments to address issues Kane raised.

“I think the next governor should be able to choose his own team,” Palmer said.

Groups such as the Friends of Harriman State Park and the Henry’s Fork Foundation, eastern Idaho residents, and relatives of the park’s former owners have contacted lawmakers to voice their opposition to the bill. Even conservative groups such as the Island Park Preservation Coalition, which has fought a national monument proposed for the area, don’t believe it should pass.

“It’s not worth the risk,” said Ken Watts, an Island Park resident active in the coalition. “We don’t want to put this issue in the hands of a judge.”

Politics and pavement

Lawmakers have been separately accused of playing politics with transportation money – not by the Idaho Transportation Department, but by local elected officials who play a similar role in the Treasure Valley.

First pitched more than a decade ago, the Idaho 16 project calls for building a high-speed expressway from Emmett to Interstate 84.

In 2011, the Idaho Transportation Department completed a federally required analysis on a new 7-mile highway from State Street to I-84 that would cost roughly $500 million.

ITD built the first phase, 2.5 miles from State Street to Chinden Boulevard that includes a 1,700-foot bridge over the Boise River, for $111 million. It opened in August 2015 and dead-ends at Chinden.

ITD doesn’t have money to complete the 4.5-mile connection from Chinden to the freeway, nor to improve the northern route to Emmett.

And that has frustrated Palmer, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and other Southwest Idaho lawmakers who want to see that expressway built now.

But getting major road projects built in the Treasure Valley is not a simple decision. The area is federally required to have a metropolitan planning organization – the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS). Its board comprises elected officials from Ada and Canyon counties, their cities and highway districts.

ITD and COMPASS analysts identify and evaluate regional transportation needs. Both the ITD and COMPASS boards then prioritize and approve projects in the Treasure Valley before they get funding.

Road projects have to go through multiple steps: preliminary design, right-of-way acquisition, final design and then construction. Typically one step is funded at a time.

Recently, ITD approved $6 million in engineering funding for the next stage of Idaho 16. But no other money has been designated for that project.

Until Monday, Idaho 16 was ranked No. 14 on COMPASS’ priority list of unfunded projects. On Monday, with Palmer in the audience, the COMPASS board voted 21-8 to raise the project priority to No. 5, and also approved the $6 million for engineering. The reason: to get legislators off its back.

COMPASS board member and Ada County Highway District Commissioner Sara Baker asked to put the matter on the agenda.

“I just want to preface this by saying this is completely political,” Baker told the board. “This isn’t going to affect anything. Highway 16 has got the $6 million. There isn’t any more money in the bucket there. ... But what has happened is there are some legislators who are very upset, rightly or wrongly, that they feel Highway 16 has not been addressed in the way that they would like it addressed, which is higher on the list.”

She continued: “Why are we doing this now? I am proposing we do it now so we do not lose a complete legislative session because there are things that are important to us – the HOV lanes, there is other local legislation that is getting stalled, that is not getting hearings, that is not getting printed. Remember, this is the unfunded list. It is not the funded list. It is not going to affect any project.”

Canyon County Commissioner Steve Rule voted against the measure. He reminded the board of his experience when ITD and COMPASS representatives met Dec. 20 with Moyle and Palmer to discuss legislative plans.

“It is hard for me to flush the disrespect displayed to the COMPASS organization at that meeting where we met with Moyle and Palmer. I have never been in a meeting where so much disrespect was put on record.”

That wasn’t the first time during recent meetings that a COMPASS member made such comments. Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas spoke Feb. 6 about the meeting being filled with “arrogance and condescension.”

Moyle confirmed the lawmakers are not happy. That, he said, is because ITD broke a commitment it made to put more money toward Idaho 16 in order to get the votes to pass a $300 million transportation funding package in 2017. The money largely went for completing a U.S. 95 project in North Idaho, and additional work on I-84 in Canyon County.

By not raising the priority for Idaho 16 earlier, Moyle said, Rule and COMPASS helped steer the money up north.

“Steve Rule should probably worry about what’s best for Canyon County,” Moyle said.

ITD officials told the Statesman they weren’t aware of any sort of deal on Idaho 16. Jan Vassar, a Transportation Board member, said the department “didn’t indicate the (roads) money was allocated to any particular project.” She defended keeping politics out of the agency’s policymaking: “I think being nonpolitical just makes the department more efficient.”

ITD spokesman Vince Trimboli said the only commitments the board makes are in its public meetings. The department provides lawmakers information and analysis, and “we don’t provide commitments,” he said.

So is Palmer’s bill, which wrests control of ITD’s director from its board and puts it under the governor, a response to inaction on Idaho 16? Moyle said the bill has been in the works for more than a year and that the timing had nothing to do with the matter.

“If Palmer was really going after ITD, he wouldn’t do it this way,” Moyle said.

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.

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