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News >  ID Government

Residency questions raised about controversial north-central Idaho lawmaker

Sept. 18, 2017 Updated Mon., Sept. 18, 2017 at 11:03 p.m.

Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, holding a copy of the Idaho Constitution, discusses her move to force the full reading of a lengthy, routine bill to update Idaho’s notary laws, speaking in the Idaho House on March 6, 2017. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)
Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, holding a copy of the Idaho Constitution, discusses her move to force the full reading of a lengthy, routine bill to update Idaho’s notary laws, speaking in the Idaho House on March 6, 2017. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

A controversial north-central Idaho legislator, who’s made her mark as an extreme stickler for the rules, may not have been qualified to run for the office because she still was claiming a homeowner’s exemption in Southern Idaho.

Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, had a homeowner’s exemption on a house she owns in Garden City, which is adjacent to Boise, from 2010 to 2016, according to county records. She was elected to the House in November of 2016, and state law requires a candidate for the House to have “resided within the legislative district for one year” prior to the general election.

Giddings maintains that she actually moved to Idaho County “prior to Nov. 7, 2015” and lived there on the piece of property where she was personally building her new home. But she still had the homeowner’s exemption in Ada County both in 2015 and in 2016.

A homeowner’s exemption from property taxes can cut an Idaho homeowner’s tax bill in half, and it’s available only for a primary residence. In 2016, $70,550 of the value of Giddings’ Garden City home was exempted from taxation due to her homeowner’s exemption; a similar amount was exempted in 2015.

Under Idaho law, “residence” is defined as “the principal or primary home or place of abode of a person” where that person’s “habitation is fixed.”

Chief Deputy Idaho Secretary of State Tim Hurst, when asked what would happen if a candidate ran for the Legislature from one county while claiming a homeowner’s exemption in another, said, “Well, they have a problem there, because when they sign the homeowner’s exemption, they’re certifying that that’s their primary place of abode.” If a different location is named as their residence for purposes of voter registration and running for office, he said, “Then you’re not being truthful to one or the other, either the assessor or the clerk.”

“There’s a possible perjury penalty,” Hurst said, “which is prison time plus up to a $50,000 fine.” But more typically, Hurst said, if someone files to run for the Legislature and they’re clearly not a resident, “We take ‘em off the ballot.”

According to state records, Giddings had been registered to vote at her Garden City address from 2010 to 2014, but in January 2015, she switched her voter registration to an address in Idaho County, on property owned by her father, Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings. In November 2015, she switched it again to another nearby address on the same road. In March 2016, she applied for a homeowner’s exemption in Idaho County for new construction at that Idaho County address.

According to county records, the new construction was on 22 acres that had been split off from her father’s property.

Idaho County sent a notice to Ada County, and Ada County in April 2016 flagged Giddings’ Ada homeowner’s exemption for removal the following year.

Erica Taggart, assistant administrative supervisor for the Ada County Assessor’s Office, said that’s not uncommon. “We sent a removal letter in February of this year telling her that we took it off for ’17,” Taggart said. “You can only have one.”

Taggart said the only exception to that is when someone moves mid-year into new construction – exactly the situation for which Giddings filed. “As new construction, she was allowed to have two for the remainder of ’16,” Taggart said. “Then we removed it in ’17.”

But if Giddings was an Ada County resident – thus qualifying for the homeowner’s exemption – in 2015 and part of 2016, she wasn’t qualified to run for office in Idaho County in 2016.

“Oh my – there is definitely a conflict there,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and a longtime observer of Idaho politics. Weatherby recalled decades ago when the mayor of tiny Placerville, in Boise County, was discovered to be claiming a homeowner’s exemption in Boise – and he resigned. “I think the homeowner’s exemption was more valuable to him than being mayor of Placerville,” he said with a chuckle.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “I will have to do some more research, but you can’t be claiming a homeowner’s exemption in Ada County and be a qualified elector in Idaho County. On the face, it would seem that you can’t have it both ways.”

Under the Idaho Constitution, the question of whether a candidate was qualified for election to the House can be decided only by the House itself, just as the Senate earlier this year acted as a jury and heard, and rejected, an election challenge to a sitting senator.

“To the extent that the whole House under Article 3, Section 9 is the deciding authority, then we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it,” Bedke said; the House convenes in January.

Betsie Kimbrough, elections chief for the Idaho Secretary of State’s office, said a homeowner’s exemption is one of the factors enumerated in state law to determine residency for a qualified elector or candidate, but it’s not the only factor. Others include employment; residence for income or other tax purposes; motor vehicle registration and several other factors.

Giddings didn’t respond to a question about whether she would pay back Ada County for her 2015 and 2016 homeowner’s exemptions or resign her north-central Idaho legislative seat, saying it was “not applicable.”

“I have complete documentation showing my compliance with Idaho Code,” she said by email. Any report suggesting otherwise, she said, would be “fake news.”

Ada County Assessor Bob McQuade, who wasn’t aware of the issue with Giddings’ exemption, said, “Occasionally we find out people who were getting it and who shouldn’t be getting it. … We do the investigation and then we send them a letter saying we’re going to be asking for the taxes to be paid back.”

Giddings defeated third-term Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, in the 2016 GOP primary, and then won election that November. Her first session of the Legislature this year was a rocky one, in which she repeatedly objected to routine legislation over obscure constitutional questions, riling her fellow lawmakers.

That reached a peak in March when Giddings forced the full reading of a 21-page bill updating Idaho’s laws regarding notaries public, bringing the business of the House grinding to a halt. Her colleagues in the House voted to make her read the bill herself, which she did, taking more than an hour.

Among the verbiage that Giddings read aloud to the House was this: “Each notary public shall provide and keep an official seal, which shall be a rubber stamp with a serrated or milled-edge border in a rectangular or circular form and includes the words ‘Notary Public,’ the notary public’s name, the words ‘State of Idaho,’ and nothing more.” The bill passed with just seven “no” votes.

Afterward, Giddings said her concern was not just with the bill, but with the way the House routinely waives the constitutional requirement for full reading of bills. “I ran on a platform to uphold the Idaho Constitution, and that is all that I did today – nothing more, nothing less,” she said then.

Giddings and two other representatives, Reps. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, and Christy Zito, R-Hammett, also tried to kill the bill earlier in committee, but drew no support for their move.

Giddings is a former A-10 fighter pilot who currently serves as a major in the Air Force Reserves; she is an Air Force Academy graduate who also holds a master’s degree in physiology.

She represents Idaho’s legislative District 7, which includes Idaho, Clearwater and Shoshone counties and a piece of Bonner County.

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