Lawsuit against state treasurer continues path toward full-time Legislature

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House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill contend that Julie Ellsworth is a squatter in the Statehouse. They say the newly-elected Idaho state treasurer has been served an eviction notice but refuses to comply. They’ve sued Ellsworth so the House can take over the treasurer’s office space and build private offices therein. 

Ellsworth is right to stay put. She contends that a deal struck with lawmakers in 2007 allows her to remain in her first floor capitol office space for as long as she chooses. Whether or not that claim true, I also think the law is on her side. 

“The legislative department shall determine the use of the space on the first, third and fourth floors as well as the basement, which basement shall include the underground atrium wings. All space within the first, third and fourth floors and the basement shall be allocated by the presiding officers of the senate and house of representatives,” reads the Idaho statute governing Statehouse floor space. 

Bedke and Hill, presiding officers of the House and Senate, respectively,  are suing as the “legislative department,” which they are not. They are but two of 105 members. They have the power to act on behalf of the House and Senate once a majority in both chambers have agreed on a course of action. The Legislature has never voted to “determine the use” of the space occupied by the state treasurer. The Legislature has not voted to evict Ellsworth nor to occupy the space on the Capitol’s first floor. Last legislative session, the House voted favorably on three separate plans to move the treasurer’s office; the Senate rejected those plans by voting down or withdrawing the bills that the House passed. 

Once the Legislature votes to evict the treasurer and occupy the first floor of the Capitol for legislative business, then legislative leaders will have authority to dole out the space within. Until that happens, or until the Legislature changes the law, Ellsworth seems in the clear to remain. She’s not a rogue tenant, and this is not a case of unlawful detainer. She’s a state constitutional officer staying in the same space her predecessors have occupied for as long as the Statehouse has stood. 

I know some of my friends in the Legislature think they need more room to conduct business—more than the additional space allotted to them during the 2010 Statehouse renovation. Up until that point, state legislators worked from their desks on the chamber floors. A small number of lucky legislators—committee chairmen and legislative leadership—had private offices. Somehow, legislators managed to conduct their business, even in the years when Idaho’s Legislature had more lawmakers than it does today. In the renovated Statehouse, lawmakers of 2019 have plenty of space to collaborate. Plenty of space for meetings. Plenty of space for private conversations. 

But why should you care if legislators make a daring grab for yet more office space? The outcome of this lawsuit will determine the future of the state Legislature: Will Idaho continue to have a quaint lawmaking body with part-time representatives and senators who spend a few months in Boise each year, then go home? Or will the state persist in its multi-generational progression toward a full-time Legislature more akin to California?

This is deeply concerning because a full-time Legislature would mean more time and motivation to pass more meddlesome laws, less lawmaker connection the state of life in Idaho, more political authority and motivation to stay in office. Plus, such a development would foster a bigger crop of political insiders rather than ordinary folks who happen to represent their neighbors part-time, thus bigger, more authoritative, and self-important government.

Up until 1969, the Idaho Legislature met every other year. Now it meets annually. Legislative sessions are getting longer. More offices have been added, more staff hired. The trajectory is clear: The state is on its way to a full-time Legislature, a path made easier with the removal of the treasurer from her historic Statehouse office. 

One way or another, the lawsuit by legislative leaders against Ellsworth will come at some expense to state taxpayers. However,  squandered legal fees are nothing compared to the expense to come if lawmakers succeed in evicting the state treasurer from the Capitol.