Senator: Empty governor's mansion budget vote illegal

Senator: Empty governor's mansion budget vote illegal
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Democratic senator contends Idaho officials violated public meetings laws with a hasty email vote this week on the $177,400 budget to cover landscaping, mowing and watering the expansive lawn below the vacant Idaho governor's mansion.

Sen. Les Bock of Garden City sits on the Governor's Housing Committee, which oversees the hilltop mansion in Boise. He said Thursday the committee's budget vote didn't give the public adequate notice to consider whether the spending plan was appropriate.

The five-member panel voted 3-2 on Tuesday to spend the money for fiscal year 2013, with Bock and Democratic Rep. Phylis King of Boise opposing it. Voting in favor were Teresa Luna, director of the Department of Administration, and Boise Republicans Sen. Chuck Winder and Rep. Max Black.

With this latest dustup, controversy that has surrounded the home nearly since it was given to the state by potato mogul J.R. Simplot in December 2004 continues.

The cost of caring for the home, watering its expansive lawn and replacing the enormous billowing flag that flies above the house when it becomes weather-tattered have drained a maintenance fund to less than $900,000 — only enough to cover the bills for the next five years, unless something is done. Bock contends the email vote, completed with no fanfare or public scrutiny, only delays a hard decision over how to dispose of the house.

"Unless some of us start saying no, and saying no emphatically, this probably could go on indefinitely," Bock told The Associated Press.

Winder, committee chairman, contends Bock should have first raised the issue of whether the vote was proper with him.

Winder said he scheduled the vote via email to accommodate committee members' schedules during the summer.

With the start of the fiscal year on July 1, he said he'd been advised by the Department of Administration, which oversees the house, that a speedy vote was necessary. If there was a procedural problem with the vote, however, Winder said he would figure out a way to redo it.

"I'm disappointed that Les Bock chose to go to the media rather than talk to me as the chairman about his concern," Winder said. "I see this as very political and divisive."

The house, on a massive grassy expanse in north Boise, has been something of an albatross for Idaho since Simplot's gift eight years ago. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, Simplot's former son-in-law, has declined to live in the mansion, preferring instead his ranch west of Boise.

Visible from miles away, some say the residence sends an improper message that Idaho's top elected leader is somehow above the people being governed.

The state does use the home as an event venue for agencies that pay to use it, but the endeavor generates little cash.

The Governor's Housing Committee is one of the few state panels with authority to set the house's budget with little input from the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee budget-writing panel.

According to state law: "Upon the direction of the committee, the department shall use moneys in the account for any purpose related to a governor's housing allowance or the acquisition, construction, remodel, furnishing, equipping or maintenance of a governor's residence."

In light of the email vote, however, Bock has asked Capitol bill drafters to draw up a measure to return authority to the Legislature. The earliest that would get debate is 2013.

Winder said it's Bock's prerogative to ask for a bill, but he doesn't think it's necessary.

"I personally think it's OK the way it is," Winder said.

Winder also downplayed Bock's contention that the push to find a solution for the house has lost momentum under his leadership of the panel.

"Discussion as to what to do with the property has been ongoing, and I'm sure will continue to be ongoing, as we try to figure out how best to deal with it," Winder said.