Not that long ago, working out of a crowded desk on the floor of the Idaho House was more than adequate for a lot of good people.
Among them was Democratic Leader Jim Stoicheff of Sandpoint, who could be found at the end of each business day at his desk on the floor puffing away on a cigarette and working through his correspondence.
The same went for many of his colleagues — especially before they rose through the committee or leadership ranks that would afford them a Capitol office. Count among them Republican Mike Simpson of Blackfoot, who went on to become House speaker and now Idaho’s 2nd District congressman, as well as Republican James “Doc” Lucas of Moscow, Democrat Deanna Vickers of Lewiston, Republican Doug Jones of Filer and Democrat Patricia McDermott of Pocatello.
More than a decade and a $120 million Capitol expansion later, things have gotten noticeably more comfortable.
Senators have private offices.
Of the 70 House members, 49 do not.
But those 49 are not packed onto the House floor. They have cubicles in the House wing.
Still not good enough. At least not for House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill.
As far as they’re concerned, a deal’s a deal. And the Capitol restoration arrangement lawmakers cut with then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter more than a decade ago guaranteed lawmakers control of the building’s first floor.
Those 49 House members want the private workspaces the dignity and convenience of their offices — to say nothing of their sense of entitlement — require.
So Treasurer Julie Ellsworth must pack up her belongings and move out of the first floor quarters she and her predecessors have occupied.
They’re taking Ellsworth to court. They want a judge to declare that the Legislature “has the sole authority ... to determine the use of space on the first floor of the Capitol,” and that Ellsworth “must comply.”
“We didn’t want it to come to this, but the treasurer is refusing to acknowledge the law,” Bedke said.
Countered Ellsworth: “This is not a friendly lawsuit, and I plan to vigorously defend the taxpayers of Idaho and combat this frivolous use of their dollars.”
These are all members of the same political party. Before she won her current office last year, Ellsworth had served in the House as a GOP caucus chairwoman. If this is how Republicans treat each other, pity the poor Democrat who occasionally gets in their way.
In any event, these are people who are elected to legislate, not litigate. They are in the business of negotiating and compromising. Is there something Bedke and Hill can trade away to bring Ellsworth along? Why should Ellsworth make the sacrifice for offices that — as she correctly notes — “will be used three months out of the year”?
Then there’s due diligence.
Suppose the legislative leaders prevail in court. Then what?
Bedke’s chamber came up with a measure to spend $10.6 million on the project — $3.5 million to send Ellsworth elsewhere and the rest to build the new private offices.
But Hill’s chamber killed the bill.
Have Bedke and Hill — a pair of older men — considered how this looks outside their limited circle? Now that a woman has replaced Treasurer Ron Crane, these two leaders have launched a lawsuit against her.
And what about the public?
Already with this massive investment in legislative opulence, your access to elected representatives has been severely curtailed. Back when Stoicheff was answering his mail on the floor, it was much easier to locate a state lawmaker and engage in a spontaneous conversation.
Today, most of them can disappear in a closed office.
How does adding 49 offices with locked doors help you?
And who is going to pay for this?
Bedke and Hill will need lawyers.
Ellsworth will have her legal team.
Are they suggesting the taxpayers will be responsible for billable hours on both sides?
Tell us it’s not so. — M.T.