A bill to prevent conflicts of interest among county officials may be making a return in the Idaho Legislature. The proposal mirrors legislation that was vetoed by Gov. Butch Otter last year despite its near unanimous passage in both the House and the Senate.
“I brought the bill last year and, since then, I have had legislators and citizens from various parts of the state share with me the ongoing need for this bill,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell. He wants a rerun of Senate Bill 1080. Had it become law in 2013, it would have mandated that instances of alleged misconduct among county elected officials be sent to the attorney general’s office for preliminary investigation.
Last year the bill was nicknamed the “Bujak Bill,” after former Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak, who faced multiple charges involving his time as county prosecutor.
The goal of the legislative effort was to help prevent county officials from being in the conflicted position of having to investigate their own alleged actions. Despite the governor’s veto of the measure, Rice believes that the need for the bill still exists and he’s giving it another shot.
“This bill is about eliminating a conflict of interest problem that has existed since about 1996 or 1997 when the attorney general’s oversight of county prosecutors was removed entirely,” Rice told IdahoReporter.com. “As a result, since that time no one has had the authority to review or investigate the actions of county prosecutors and the other county elected officials unless the county commissioners or the county prosecutor requested appointment of conflicts counsel.”
Last year, Senate BIll 1080 passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 62-3 and was passed unanimously in the Senate. Despite the bill’s overwhelming support, some critics claimed that it would enable county governments to offload to the state government work that rightly belongs to counties. Others lamented that the bill did not budget extra money for the attorney general’s office to handle the presumed extra workload that it would create.
A “trailer bill” was offered up as a means of providing funds for the extra work, but that legislation failed.
“I agree with this legislation’s intent, and I appreciate Sen. Rice’s efforts to collaborate with the office of the attorney general in its development,” Otter wrote in a letter in announcing his veto. “Unfortunately the decision by the House of Representatives not to take up the trailer appropriation in trailer S1195 makes my veto necessary.”
Rice said that he’s collaborating with the attorney general’s office to ensure that appropriate funding is provided. “The bill is being run before the attorney general’s budget so that it does not require a trailer bill,” he said.
At least one member of the House of Representatives is already expressing support for Rice’s proposal, although she doesn’t believe that it needs to include extra funding for the attorney general’s office.
"I will be supporting the county conflict of interest bill because we need to fix situations in government where the fox is guarding the henhouse," commented Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder. "I do not believe, however, that the attorney general's office needs an additional full-time employee to fulfill this role. This bill only calls for a preliminary investigation when the need arises. Is there really enough corruption in county government to warrant a full-time employee? I hope not.”
Rice, nonetheless, sees it differently.
“There is no such thing as a responsibility that does not require fulfillment by a person,” Rice said. “Therefore, obviously, there is some staff time required by the additional responsibilities. I am informed that the AG is seeking additional staff and that the additional responsibility would be covered in that request.”