GOP state controller’s race centers on transparency and state lands

GOP state controller’s race centers on transparency and state lands

by
Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
May 20, 2010
Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
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May 20, 2010

The challenger to Idaho State Controller Donna Jones in the Republican primary says he’ll make sure more government spending records are posted online and wants to help small logging companies bid on timber contracts on state lands.  Jones, who’s seeking her second term as controller, said she favors a more robust government transparency program with a $250,000 price tag and is fine with the Department of Lands’ policy for getting the most profit from timber sales.

Todd Hatfield, who owns a log home building company in McCall, is challenging Jones in the controller’s race.  The Idaho state controller is the chief fiscal officer of the state, which includes paying all state bills and employees and maintaining financial records.  The controller also oversees the state’s Computer Service Center, which is growing in scope and budget.  The controller casts one of five votes on the Idaho Land Board, which manages state lands that pay out to public schools, universities, and other state agencies.

Before becoming controller, Jones served 12 years in the Idaho House of Representatives.  She’s also owned several businesses and is a licensed real estate agent.

Both candidates support putting government spending records online in a format that’s up-to-date and easy to search.  After she took office, Jones said she researched other states’ spending transparency efforts.  “We put together a prototype of a transparency tool, which would be a dynamic, real-time reporting tool, rather than a static site, which you could easily put up there, but would only be accurate one time a year,” Jones told IdahoReporter.com.  Lawmakers liked the idea, but not the $250,000 cost for the software to run the program, which has been waiting for funding for several years.

Until that program to track spending is approved, Jones said she’s making sure those interested in spending records get the documents they’re looking for.  “We are constantly responding to public information requests, and we do it in a very timely manner,” she said.

“We don’t have people kicking our doors in on this transparency stuff,” said Dan Goicoechea, Jones’ chief of staff.  “When people call and ask for the information, we don’t ask them why.  We turn it around.”

Hatfield wants records posted online, even if the state can’t currently afford the software Jones’ wants.  He wants to post PDF files of the state’s checkbook on the Internet.  “Lack of transparency encourages waste in the departments,” he said.  “We need to have the checkbook online … Something’s better than nothing.”

“There are some complicated issues that go beyond the simplistic fix,” Jones said.  She said posting PDF files would require blacking out lots of private information, and that files posted on the Internet would quickly become inaccurate.

The controller’s role on the Land Board is something Hatfield would also change.  He would encourage the Department of Lands to offer more smaller timber sales on state lands that he said smaller logging companies could afford to buy.  “I believe that I can convince other members of the Land Board,” he said.  “The Land Board seems to be concerned with getting as much money into the school fund today, and they’re interpreting that as being long term.  I beg to differ, because we need to have a healthy forest industry to have a healthy long-term return.”  Hatfield’s website lists several dozen logging and wood manufacturing companies as supporters.

Hatfield said the lack of smaller sales, and state economic conditions, are harming Idaho sawmills.  As more mills close, there would be fewer bidders to compete for timber contracts.  The state’s profits from those timber sales go to endowment funds for schools and other agencies.

“We have to let the experts in this,” Jones said about timber sales, “and that’s the Department of Lands, bring us these proposals on the most efficient way to hold timber sales.  We already do have some smaller volume sales.”

One of the most contentious issues before the Land Board is the proposed fee increases to lakefront cottage leaseholders on Payette Lake in McCall and Priest Lake in north Idaho.  Jones joined Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in voting against the increase that was approved by the board, favoring a larger increase.  “We have a constitutional mandate to get the greatest financial return,” Jones said.  She wouldn’t say whether she agrees with Wasden’s lawsuit against the board over the lease rates.  “Lawrence doesn’t tell me how to do my business, nor do I tell him how to do his business.”

Hatfield said he opposed any increase to the lessees.  “There are quite a few lot owners that are ready to walk away from their investment there, because they can’t afford the new increases,” he said.  “They’re also suffering from the economy, and don’t have the extra income to pay the extra lease rates.”

Since Jones was elected four years ago, she has reduced the controller’s office staff and, for the last two years, its spending of state general fund tax dollars by $800,000.  However, Hatfield is critical of the increase in total spending since Jones took office.  The controller’s budget includes dedicated funds, not paid by taxpayers, for the computer center.  He said he would need to analyze where further reductions could be made.  “I think that should be a big concern to everyone in the state.”

The winner of the May 25 Republican primary will face Democrat Bruce Robinett of Nampa, a management accountant for Hewlett-Packard, in the November general election.

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