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Eye on Boise: Capitol remodeling costs draw drama from Idaho legislators

BOISE – GOP state Treasurer Julie Ellsworth says House leaders want to spend “over $10 million on private offices for legislators to use three months out of the year.”

GOP House Speaker Scott Bedke calls that “ridiculous,” a “false claim,” and a “gross misstatement of fact.”

Ellsworth points to HB 289, an appropriation bill that passed the House handily in 2019 but died on a 17-18 vote in the Senate, that had a price tag of $10.6 million. Bedke says that had other things rolled into it, including the now-abandoned plan to buy back a bank building across from the Capitol, though that’s not specifically mentioned in the bill.

So who’s right? It’s complicated, but it appears that it’s Bedke.

HB 289 outlined “three projects” that would be paid for by its $10,595,800 appropriation: $3.53 million “to acquire, remodel or renovate reasonable office space for the state treasurer’s office and staff;” $710,500 for remodeling the north wing of the first floor of the Capitol; and $6.4 million “for the remodel of the east wing of the first floor and garden level of the Capitol.”

Both the north wing and east wing remodel projects were aimed at providing new office space for House members. Although all senators have private offices in the Capitol during the annual three-month legislative sessions, House members who don’t chair a committee or serve in leadership have just cubicle space in the Capitol’s basement. The original plans for renovating the Capitol called for private offices for all lawmakers, until then-Gov. Butch Otter demanded that planned underground wings be reduced from two stories to a single story, reducing available office space.

That’s why House leaders are eyeing the treasurer’s space on the Capitol’s first floor.

In HB 289, tucked into the $3.53 million to move the state treasurer’s offices was $1,955,000 to buy back the bank building, which the state had sold to a private investor in December 2016 for $1,475,000. The idea was that the state might need to use that building for the treasurer’s offices, or other state uses.

House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Nampa, told me at the time, “We’re looking toward the future and recognizing that there’s not a lot of property that’s within the Capitol Mall area. It’s just going to get more expensive.”

The $10.6 million appropriation bill passed the House, 60-9, but ran into major opposition in the Senate, which killed it on a 17-18 vote on April 1, amid tense end-of-session relations between the House and the Senate.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee reconvened, and split the $10.6 million into multiple, separate bills. SB 1210 allocated $3.89 million for the “first phase” of the Capitol renovations in the east and north wings to provide new offices for House members, with another $3.2 million anticipated to be spent the next year for the second phase.

SB 1211 allocated $529,000 from the state general fund to move the state treasurer’s offices out of the Capitol and into suitable space elsewhere, likely in the nearby Borah Building, where some of the treasurer’s staff already work.

SB 1212 allocated $1.96 million from the state general fund to buy the bank building.

SB 1212 was killed in the Senate on a 12-18 vote on April 11. SB 1211 never got a vote in the full Senate; it was sent back to the Senate Finance Committee to die instead. SB 1210 failed on an 11-19 vote in the Senate on April 11. And with that, all three pieces of the original $10.6 million appropriation bill had died.

“State won’t buy back bank building after all, amid House-Senate spat,” read the headline on my Sunday column on April 21, 2019.

Bedke has bristled as Ellsworth has cited the $10 million figure over and over.

“The original remodel was embedded in an appropriation that was for $10 million, but that money also bought that bank property that was kitty-corner from the Capitol,” Bedke said. “So I hate to wreck her narrative, but that’s always been false.”

Ellsworth has her own stinging words for her fellow Republican official. “I am happy Speaker Scott Bedke now agrees this is a ridiculous amount,” she said in a statement tagged a “rebuttal.”

Ellsworth has maintained the treasurer’s offices should remain in the Capitol, where they’ve been located for more than 100 years. But a 2007 law gave the Legislature, not the executive branch, control over the first floor of the Capitol.

“It’s against the law for her to stay there,” Bedke said.

Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill sued Ellsworth over her refusal to move; she lost in 4th District Court, but last week filed an appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Ellsworth is a former member of the House Republican leadership herself; she was majority caucus chair when she was a state representative. She served in the House for 12 years before being elected state treasurer in 2018.

So what’s the actual estimate of costs for remodeling the Capitol for offices for House members? In HB 289 in 2019, it appears to be $7.1 million, not counting the $529,000 cost to relocate the treasurer’s offices. That’s also the total of the two proposed phases in the subsequent bills that failed.

“I’m not committed to any of those numbers, frankly,” Bedke said. “I don’t think anyone’s married to any of those numbers. Those were ballpark numbers. … Those were just very rough estimates.”

When asked how much the Legislature plans to spend, he said, “In the short term, nothing. We’re just going to make it the best we can.”

When it’s the right time to consider remodeling, he said, “We’ll have to turn it over to the architects, get a bid and all like that. It’ll be a very public process when we do it.”

Asked what he’s been hearing from his constituents, the speaker said, “I think most Idahoans think the $10 million is too much money for offices when you do the math, and I agree with ‘em. That’s why we’re not going to spend that much.”

But in the meantime, the state is spending big on the continuing lawsuit.

So far, according to state records, the private attorneys representing both sides have cost the treasurer’s office $205,488. Ellsworth is represented by former Idaho Attorney General David Leroy in the case. For the Legislature, which is represented by B. Newal Squyres of the law firm Holland & Hart, legal fees have run $313,914 through Aug. 31.

All told, that’s $519,402 – more than half a million dollars, and counting.

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