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Eye on Boise: To house a governor…

Idaho's last governor's mansion, former home of the late J.R. Simplot, who donated it to the state in 2004. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

To make up for the state’s lack of a governor’s mansion, Idaho pays its governor a $4,500 a month housing allowance, which in current Gov. Butch Otter’s case is $54,000 a year just to live at his own ranch in Star.

Now, with a new governor to be elected this year, lawmakers are rethinking that.

Originally, when the payment started in 1999, the idea was that a governor needs to entertain and hold official events at his or her home, so the governor needed more than just an ordinary residence. But things have changed in Boise since 1999.

“My initial feeling is it’s high right now, given the change in circumstances,” said Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, who serves on the Governor’s Housing Committee, a legislative panel charged with overseeing the state’s official governor’s residence and the funding for it.

Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, said, “I think some thought should be given to if every circumstance is the same. Right now, we’re just blanket saying: regardless of whether you live here or you don’t live here, you get the stipend.”

He said if a governor is from outside the Boise area, “I’m fine with the stipend to have a place down here.” And even if Otter had decided he didn’t want to commute from Star, and wanted to use the funds for a place in Boise, Anderst said he thought that would’ve been OK.

But, he said, “If you’re going to remain in your personal residence, which part of that stipend is necessary, and which is not?”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who chairs the panel, said, “We’ve paid the stipend for the last 22 years. I think it’s a matter of: What’s the right amount?”

He said, “I think there should be an obligation on the part of the public to provide a residence or a stipend for a residence.”

Idaho is one of just six states without an official governor’s residence. Its last one, the former Simplot mansion atop a high-profile, grassy green hill in north Boise, was donated to the state by the Simplot family in 2004 after the death of billionaire potato and microchip baron J.R. Simplot. But no Idaho governor ever lived there, and amid escalating costs, the state gave it back to the Simplot family in 2013. In 2016, the family demolished the home.

Last week, the legislative panel voted unanimously to turn a vacant 15-acre east Boise site off Horizon Drive that the state’s owned since 1981 over to the city of Boise for a park; under deed restrictions, that property could only be used for a governor’s residence or a public park.

Idaho’s last occupied governor’s residence, an older home in Boise’s North End, was sold in 1990, after it had deteriorated since serving as the official governor’s mansion since 1947 and Idaho governors began declining to live there. The $221,000 in proceeds 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.

State law still required that the governor be provided with housing – an idea promoted as ensuring that a governor could be elected from anywhere in the far-flung state and easily settle into Boise to govern. So lawmakers began tapping the governor’s housing fund for a housing stipend, starting with Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in 1999; the stipend started at $4,000 a month.

The stipend looked attractive to lawmakers compared to what immediately preceded it, after Gov. Phil Batt, who was elected in 1994, said he had no interest in a mansion. Lawmakers were aghast when he and the first lady moved into a small apartment that forced them to go to a laundromat to wash clothes. They debated buying an official governor’s condo downtown or offering a hefty living allowance, but a disgusted Batt, famous for his frugality, bought his own southeast Boise home and vetoed the allowance.

Not to be put off, the Legislature decided to buy Batt’s home, proclaiming that it had the answer to the dilemma: The governor’s residence fund, which had by then grown to $1.5 million with interest earnings, would become a revolving home-purchase account. If a future governor didn’t like the home Batt had picked, the state would sell it and purchase another.

Complications quickly arose. Batt’s home was too modest for official state entertaining, and when he left office he sought to buy it back from the state. But then state property sales rules got in the way, and Batt essentially was booted out of the home, which then was sold anyway.

Otter, a multimillionaire, said when elected that he’d accept the same payments any governor would get; he received the stipend until 2009, when it stopped because the Simplot House was available to him – even though he chose not to move into his ex-father-in-law’s home. In June 2013, when the home went back to the Simplots, Otter started receiving the housing stipend again; by then, it had increased to $4,500 a year.

The governor’s current salary is $126,302 per year. When a new governor takes office next year, he or she will earn $138,302 each year for the next four years, a 9.5 percent increase over Otter’s current salary. This year’s Legislature already passed a bill to set the governor’s salary for the next four years; under the state Constitution, that has to be decided before the governor’s term starts.

Meanwhile, the governor’s housing fund has been dwindling. As of April 30, it had a balance of $455,848. It receives a small amount of interest income; its expenses, in addition to the stipend, include Department of Administration overhead, storage and moving expenses. State officials estimate that at the current rate, it’ll be spent down to zero over the next seven years.

Because of the concern about governors needing to host state events, the Department of Administration requested a list of events held at Otter’s ranch since September 2016. Those included three weddings; the Ada County Republican Roundup; two staff Christmas parties; a Governor’s Cup board dinner; a Military Division dinner; two nonprofit fundraisers; and a dinner for a visiting delegation from Taiwan in September 2017.

Lawmakers on the panel weren’t bowled over by the list of events; events like the Taiwan delegation dinner could be held at a restaurant or other venue, they noted.

The panel decided to do more research and delay any decision on the stipend for the next governor until its next meeting in October – which still would be in time to be finalized before the November election.

Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said, “I think we need to do some homework, truly to understand the history, and to be responsible with the taxpayer money. I’m not leaning a certain way.”

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