BOISE — The fight between Idaho’s GOP state treasurer and GOP legislative leaders over office space in the Capitol is heating up, with Treasurer Julie Ellsworth now arguing that former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter promised the treasurer could keep the first-floor office space permanently.
A 2007 law on space allocation after a major renovation of the state Capitol transferred control over the first floor from the governor to the Legislature, as part of a compromise after Otter insisted on scaling back new underground wings that were added to the Capitol from two underground levels to just one.
Legislative leaders say they allowed former longtime state Treasurer Ron Crane to keep his offices on the first floor of the Capitol, but once he retired, they moved to take over the space for legislative offices.
In arguments filed with the 4th District Court late last week, Ellsworth, who is represented in the case by former state Attorney General David Leroy, presses for the case to be thrown out, arguing that Otter promised the office space to the treasurer before the 2007 bill became law, “while he still had the exclusive authority to determine use.”
Leroy wrote, “In reality, this is and always will be a political question.”
The case is set for a court hearing Oct. 31. Ellsworth has filed a motion to dismiss the legislative leaders’ lawsuit on a variety of grounds, arguing in part that House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill weren’t authorized by the Legislature as a whole to bring it. Bedke and Hill, who are represented by private attorneys William Myers and Newal Squyres of the Boise law firm Holland & Hart, argued that the 2007 law gave the Legislature authority over allocation of first-floor office space, and that Ellsworth was ignoring the law. They also disputed the standing argument, saying the law allows for such lawsuits without a vote of the Legislature.
Ellsworth’s latest filing disputes the legislative leaders’ arguments against her motion for dismissal, saying none of them “measure up.”
It also notes some unsuccessful negotiations between the two sides. Legislative leaders had talked about allowing a “ceremonial” office for the treasurer, next to a historic vault, to remain, but requiring the rest of the office to move.
Ellsworth said her office is open to the public on every business day, and frequent visitors include agency employees transacting state banking business and groups of schoolchildren on tours.
Ellsworth made a “counter-offer of compromise,” according to the filing, proposing that she’d keep all her existing office space, with one exception: A break room and storage area would be remodeled into a conference room, which she would offer for “joint use by the legislature, my office and the public.”
“My offer was rejected,” Ellsworth said in an affidavit.
Ellsworth’s filing also includes an affidavit from Crane, saying he reached a deal with Otter for the treasurer to stay in the first-floor Capitol office space.
Then, Crane says in the affidavit, “A compromise was reached between the Governor and legislative leaders for the Treasurer to retain the space then occupied by the Treasurer. … The agreement was to apply after the Capitol building renovation if the Treasurer chose to move back into the space and for the space to be used by the Treasurer unless and until the Treasurer or a future Treasurer decided to leave. The compromise removed any requirement that the Treasurer’s use of all of the space was temporary including the banking function and space, and left it up to the Treasurer to decide if or when he or she should decide to relocate.”
A March 9, 2007 letter from then-Speaker Lawerence Denney and then-Senate President Pro-Tem Robert Geddes to Otter is included with the filing, in which the two legislative leaders wrote, “We appreciate your recognition of the historical significance of the Treasurer’s Office located on the first floor of the Capitol Building and share your view.”
The letter also states, “It is our understanding of the agreement reached within the compromise framework for the Capitol Master Plan and adopted by the Capitol Commission that the aforementioned office space as described above shall continue to be assigned to the Treasurer, should he choose to remain on the first floor following the Capitol renovation.”
There’s no mention of future state treasurers, however.
The court filing also includes a copy of an unsigned, “draft” letter from Otter to Geddes containing an identical paragraph, and adding after it, “For the record, he does so choose.”
It concludes, “In summary, the State Treasurer shall occupy all of the office space located on the south side of the east wing of the first floor. The use of the words ‘temporary basis’ was not and will not be a part of any agreement.” The unsigned draft letter is on plain paper, not letterhead.
Ellsworth also noted in her affidavit that she told legislators this year that demanding her office move out of the Capitol “amounted to requiring that we commit a felony, because there is a statutory requirement for the State Treasurer to keep state moneys in the vault and safe in the Capitol building and in no other place, and that failure to comply is a felony.”
“The Legislature then passed HB 251 and included a retroactive emergency clause provision that made the change retroactive to Jan. 1, 2019, which pre-dates my tenure,” she stated.
HB 251 passed the House 64-5 and the Senate 24-11, and was signed into law April 5 by Gov. Brad Little. It allows state moneys to be held in “a secure location in the offices of the state treasurer,” rather than specifically in the historic vault in the state Capitol that the treasurer now uses.