Here is a sneak preview of our Sunday editorial on Idaho's governor's mansion.
A state committee approved a $177,400 budget to maintain Idaho’s governor’s mansion, in a June vote by email that violated open meeting law.
And that isn’t the sole problem surrounding the mansion. Perhaps the most visible vacant house in the state, the mansion has never been used for its supposed purpose, providing a residence for the state’s chief executive.
State agencies occasionally use the mansion for meetings and retreats — with “occasionally” being the operative word. According to Emilie Ritter Saunders, a reporter with StateImpact Idaho, the 42 events held since June 2009 have brought in a modest $6,800 in rental fees.
By comparison, Saunders reports, the state will spend $3,400 just maintaining telephone, cable TV and wi-fi at the mansion — and that’s just a fraction of the mansion budget, gobbled up largely by maintaining the hilltop grounds and paying the electric bill.
This problem isn’t new. As we said in an editorial in January 2008 — 37 months after the state accepted the donation of J.R. Simplot’s former residence — Idaho has “a mansion without a mission.” The situation has not improved since then; the only thing that’s changing is the balance of the state’s mansion maintenance fund, which is in a gradual state of decline.
Meeting last week, face to face, the committee formally approved the maintenance budget. But the committee agreed to hold a public hearing in September, to allow Idahoans to have a say about the mansion’s future.
So let’s talk about how to make — or not make — this decision:
• This shouldn’t be a political call — yet it has political overtones. The $177,400 maintenance budget passed on what amounts to a 3-2 party-line vote. Two Boise Republican lawmakers, Sen. Chuck Winder and Rep. Max Black, endorsed the budget, joined by a member of Gov. Butch Otter’s cabinet, Administration Department Director Teresa Luna. Two Boise Democrats, Sen. Les Bock and Rep. Phylis King, voted against the budget.
Perhaps that’s just coincidence. It’s hard to see how, or why, the disposition of the state mansion should be a partisan matter.
• This decision shouldn’t come down to personalities — although those are difficult to overcome.
The mansion was donated by Simplot, one of the state’s industrial icons. His survivors hold considerable sway in Idaho. And Otter, who has declined to live in the mansion, is Simplot’s former son-in-law.
That doesn’t make it easy to turn back the property — which could, ultimately, wind up back in the Simplots’ possession. But if the state has no use for the property, then it has no business holding onto it.
• This shouldn’t be a snap decision, either.
The mansion is costing the state money. But one saving grace is the fact that Idaho still has nearly $900,000 in a dedicated governor’s housing fund. That gives the state time to figure out what to do with the Simplot mansion — and how to address the housing needs of future governors.
It could be said that the state, and then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, accepted the donation in 2004 without having a clear plan for the property. The state has the time, and the responsibility, to make a thought-out decision about the property’s long-term future.