BOISE — A long-standing proposal to relocate a portion of the Idaho state treasurer’s staff and provide more office space for House lawmakers is expected to cost about $10.6 million.
The joint budget committee approved a funding request for that amount Friday.
The budget includes $3.5 million to move most of the treasurer’s staff out of the Statehouse, plus $7.1 million to construct 49 private offices and remodel some legislative staff space.
That comes out to about $145,000 per office, not including the treasurer’s move.
House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Nampa, said the project dates back to 2007, when then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter balked at plans to expand the capitol building by adding two, two-story wings onto the House and Senate.
Otter said one-story extensions were good enough. Legislative leaders went along with him after he agreed to relinquish control of the first-floor space.
The only exception to the deal was the treasurer’s ceremonial office and an adjacent room with a large vault. The remaining office space was supposed to be turned over to the Legislature once incumbent Treasurer Ron Crane left office.
“That time has come,” Monks said. “Now we’re looking to put more House offices there on the first floor.”
Every member of the Idaho Senate has a private office, but only 21 of 70 House members do. The others work in open cubicles that range in size from small to extremely cramped.
“It’s very difficult to work in the cubicles,” said Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, who serves on the budget committee. “It’s impossible to have a confidential meeting or telephone call. I think this is an important move for the future of the Legislature to be able to work effectively and to value our constituents equally between the House and Senate.”
Troy’s motion to approve the $10.6 million project passed 16-2. Sens. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, and Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, opposed the measure.
Johnson supported the legislative portion of the funding request, but had concerns about the $3.5 million to relocate the treasurer’s staff. Crabtree had concerns about the overall budget.
“If we are going to be conservative, it’s hard for me to explain to my constituents how we need to spend $10 million so some of us can have nice offices for three months out of the year,” he said.
State Treasurer Julie Ellsworth, who was elected last year after former Treasurer Ron Crane retired, was aware of the relocation deal when she ran for office.
Nevertheless, Ellsworth opposes the relocation and has sought legal advice on whether lawmakers can force the move.
“They want $10 million for private offices that they’ll use three months of the year,” she said Friday. “I understand that the Legislature can do this, but they need to let people know about it.”
Ellsworth, who previously served six terms in the House, noted that the joint budget committee typically doesn’t take public testimony. Consequently, the public won’t have a formal opportunity to weigh in on the relocation and remodel plans.
Given the potential lack of suitable space for her staff to relocate — as well as the historical nature of the current office space, which is part of the original Capitol building — she also suggested the final price tag will be higher than projected.
“It will cost more than $10 million,” Ellsworth said.
Scaling back the Capitol expansion plans in 2007 saved an estimated $11 million. That would have provided another story on both the House and Senate wings.
If the House and Senate approve the funding request, it will go to the governor for his signature.