Brad Little

Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, in his office at the state Capitol on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018.

BOISE — After a year of debate, a state panel has voted along party lines to slightly raise the housing stipend for Idaho’s governor from $4,500 to $4,551 a month come January, as Idaho continues to be one of just a handful of states without a governor’s mansion.

The vote was 3-2, with the panel’s two Democrats, Sen. Maryanne Jordan and Rep. Melissa Wintrow of Boise, both voting “no.”

“I feel like the purpose of the governor’s mansion was as a hosting and entertainment space, and that’s not been met for quite some time,” Jordan said after the vote. “The hosting and entertaining will get done in other places. My feeling is that we need to be addressing the governor’s salary. It’s a big job and deserves an adequate salary. Doing this instead doesn’t make sense.”

The salary for the incoming Idaho governor, current Lt. Gov. Brad Little, already has been set at $138,302 a year for the next four years, 9.5 percent more than current Gov. Butch Otter’s salary of $126,302.

The housing stipend will add on another $54,600 a year.

Wintrow said she thought it made more sense to fund relocation costs, rather than housing costs, for a new governor. “I look forward to having a larger discussion about the necessity of having a stipend in general,” she said.

Little said he’s fine with the amount the panel set. “It’s up to that committee,” he said.

Ever since he was in the state Senate, Little, who lives in Emmett, has rented a condo in Boise from a subsidiary of a company owned by his family. “We keep two residences,” he said. He said initially, the condo was rented to others outside the legislative session, but he soon found he needed it enough to keep it year-round.

According to research Jordan presented to the Legislature’s Governor’s Housing Committee last spring, Idaho is now one of just five states that don’t have an official governor’s residence. The others are Arizona, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. Among those, Massachusetts is the only one that provides a housing stipend to its governor; there, it’s $65,000 a year for housing and living expenses.

Keith Reynolds, deputy director of the state Department of Administration, prepared estimates for the lawmakers of the cost of owning and maintaining a 2,500-square-foot home in North Boise, including mortgage payments, utilities, insurance and taxes. It came to $3,168 a month, but because the governor’s stipend is treated as taxable income, Reynolds calculated that it would need to be $4,551 to cover that $3,168 monthly cost.

Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, made the motion to adopt the $4,551 monthly figure. He said he’d be concerned if the state were paying the stipend to a governor who was living in his or her own primary home in Boise and not incurring the cost of maintaining a secondary residence.

“I like the idea of having a formula established to reflect the cost to maintain a residence,” he said, adding that he doesn’t favor Idaho going back to having a governor’s mansion. “It ultimately becomes a runaway expense to maintain,” he said.

Idaho’s last official governor’s residence was never occupied; it was J.R. Simplot’s former hilltop mansion, which his family donated to the state in 2004 after his death. Amid escalating costs, the state gave it back to the Simplot family in 2013. Otter declined to live there, instead staying at his ranch in Star; Simplot was his ex-father-in-law. In 2016, the Simplot family demolished the home.

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 almost $1 million dedicated to housing for the governor.

State Department of Administration Director Bob Geddes, who also serves as a voting member of the housing committee, said the point is to “allow any citizen of the state to be treated fairly and equitably, as they would have to relocate” if elected governor.

Until 1994, the Idaho Constitution required the governor and all other state constitutional officers to reside in Ada County during their term of office, but voters repealed that requirement through a 1994 constitutional amendment. The Constitution now just requires their offices to be in Ada County, where the state Capitol is.

Lawmakers began tapping the governor’s mansion fund in 1999 to pay then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne a $4,000 per month housing stipend. That followed a series of mishaps with previous Gov. Phil Batt, who, famous for his frugality, said he had no interest in a mansion and moved into a small apartment. After the first lady was spotted doing laundry at a laundromat, lawmakers debated buying an official governor’s condo in downtown Boise or offering a living allowance. A disgusted Batt bought his own home in southeast Boise instead.

Then, 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.

The governor’s housing fund is now down to $425,723.

Little said when he was a state senator, he served on the governor’s housing committee that started the stipend. “The reason we started it was because of Phil Batt,” he said. “My position was, if you have, let’s say, somebody who either they or a member of their family needs access for a wheelchair, or somebody’s got eight kids — that was the issue for me with having a house.” Each governor might have different housing needs, he noted.

“We need an entertainment venue,” Little said, noting that the governor’s office lacks a kitchen, so wouldn’t work for hosting, for example, a trade delegation for a reception or meal. “This doesn’t solve that problem.”

“I can tell you that that stipend is a fraction of what we were spending on maintaining the previous house,” Little said.

Little said he’s fine with the committee’s decision, which Committee Chairman Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said may be re-examined as often as yearly to keep it in line with costs.

“I said whatever they decide to do,” Little said. “I’d have been fine if it was zero. I didn’t run for governor because of the housing allowance.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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