House Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star and State Treasurer Julie Ellsworth have a friendship that goes way back.
They served together in the Legislature, shared office space when both were members of House majority leadership and Moyle was one of Ellsworth’s biggest boosters during her successful run last year for the treasurer’s job.
“Julie’s my friend … I love her to death,” says Moyle. “She’s like a sister.”
Ellsworth also had close working relationships with House Speaker Scott Bedke, serving as an assistant to the speaker for several legislative sessions.
Those good feelings are in the past now. Republican leaders are trying to kick Ellsworth out of her office to make more space for legislative offices. Because of his friendship with Ellsworth, Moyle says he’s letting House Speaker Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill do most of the heavy lifting on a lawsuit filed against Ellsworth. The GOP leaders contend that they have the right to dictate office space in the Capitol, and Moyle says House Republicans are solidly behind the efforts to evict the treasurer.
Wow. Think what would happen if Ellsworth were a Democrat, and not a Republican.
Ellsworth isn’t budging – at least not without a fight, “This is stupid,” she says bluntly. As she sees it, there’s no other way to describe spending $10 million of taxpayer money to create private offices for a dozen or so legislators for three months out of the year. That amount doesn’t include the cost of relocating the treasurer’s office – or the legal fees that go with fighting this lawsuit on both ends. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden refused to get in the middle of this turf war, drawing some fire from Moyle.
“He knows the law,” Moyle said.
Ellsworth’s legal team, led by former Attorney General David Leroy, has a different view. In 2007, then-Senate Pro Tem Bob Geddes issued a statement to a committee indicating that the space belongs to the treasurer for as long as he/she wants to occupy the space. Geddes said it was part of an agreement negotiated with the governor.
“I’m a taxpayer too, but first and foremost, I am the elected constitutional officer duty housed to protect the state’s banking functions for all our citizens and agencies,” Ellsworth said. “We use our huge vault and central location here in the Statehouse to do just that on a year-around basis, including those nine months annually when the Legislature is not in session.”
Ellsworth says taxpayers spent $120 million to renovate the state Capitol, and taxpayers want a working Capitol. “What’s ironic, it’s costing $40 million to renovate the Notre Dame Cathedral (in Paris), which was destroyed by fire.”
Critics of the leadership’s actions, including the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Wayne Hoffman, views this office grab as a first step toward making Idaho a full-time Legislature. Certainly, that’s one way for the office space to be used for the full year. As it stands today, Hoffman says, legislators “have plenty of space to collaborate. Plenty of space for meetings. Plenty of space for private conversations.”
It’s far better than the old days when the only office space that most legislators had was their small space on the floors of the House and Senate. Ah, but senators have private offices and secretaries. Lowly House members, who are not committee chairmen, are relegated to cramped cubicles – where it’s hard to carry on private conversations, either by telephone, or in person.
I’ll hold back my tears. House members, between running to floor sessions and committee meetings, don’t spend much time in their cubicles. The House is in lockdown mode during the session, and the only way to reach a legislator is through a security guard. The odds of winning a lottery are better than finding a House member at his/her desk at a specific time. If an out-of-town constituent wants to visit a House member, good luck.
And, now, those in the “people’s House” want office space in the treasurer’s office to make access more difficult.
As Leroy sees it, “If they simply would listen to public opinion, and the public outcry over this, they would dismiss the suit today.”
Of course, the Legislature does not always pay attention to public opinion – especially in a turf battle of this nature.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at email@example.com.