News » Unda' the Rotunda

Otter Digs In

Statehouse debate sets up power play


The thrill of Idaho's "big dig"--a plan to add two underground wings to the sides of the Capitol--has been palpable under the rotunda since day one of the legislative season.

Lawmakers and their staff, eyes agleam, chat about their soon-to-be-upgraded office space and meeting rooms.

It's an enthusiasm second only to the joy expressed over anything Bronco.

So when Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter announced Jan. 12 that all work on the Capitol renovation would halt, a shockwave issued through the building.

Did he do that? Can he do that?

Otter's bold move, stopping work on the wings his second week in office, should not have been a surprise to anyone watching television during last fall's political campaigns.

You may have seen the ads: then-candidate Otter strolling out in front of the Capitol steps warning voters that the state was going to spend nearly $50 million in taxpayer money to build the wings, money that could be better spent on schools and roads. Otter suddenly appearing in an empty room, presumably in the old Borah post office, peering out the sunny windows and testing the stoutness of the molding with his fist. Otter declaring, "government needs to make the best use of what it already has."

But Senate leaders and the top legislative advisors, along with the construction companies already digging test wells and trying to complete schematics, scrambled to react to the new boss's order.

"The fact that we're having this discussion with the governor is not surprising," said assistant majority leader Joe Stegner, of Lewiston, emerging from a two-Power Point meeting with the governor. "The fact that he issued this 'stop work' order is."

But those advocating for the underground wings, a concept approved last year by most of the Senate and a slight majority of the House, should have known Otter was serious.

Otter had called Legislative leaders before he ran the campaign ads. He had come out against the plan, calling it an "unnecessary expense" as early as Sept. 10 in a story in the Mountain Home News.

Senate Republicans offered to meet with Otter during the campaign to tell him about the 12 years of planning, debate and compromise that had gone into the Capitol renovation plan, Stegner said.

But Otter was busy campaigning and, according to his staff, did not want to exert undue influence on affairs of state before officially occupying the second floor of the Statehouse.

So Stegner, and Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Brad Little and the various committees and commissions tasked with carrying out the renovation knew on Sept. 20 and on Sept. 27 when the Idaho State Building Authority discussed and then approved the sale of $130 million in bonds for the project, that the debate was not over.

At both meetings, two powerful Building Authority commissioners asked pointed questions about the possibility that the plans could change.

Commissioner Trent Clark, a past chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, asked how much the state would owe if the plans changed by April, the end of the Legislative session and proposed start date for major construction.

Clark also questioned why conservative lawmakers who normally shy away from placing the state in debt were so supportive of this plan.

Clark proposed that the Building Authority, the state entity that pays for and then leases new buildings to the state, approve the bond sale on the condition that construction costs be minimized at the outset in case a new plan arises from the Department of Administration in the coming months.

Though Otter advisors insist it's not related to the wings, one of Otter's first proposals was to disband the Department of Administration and scatter its functions to other state agencies. He also dismissed Administration director Pam Ahrens, who had been a major player in the Capitol renovation plan.

Building Authority Commissioner Phil Reberger, a lobbyist and former aide to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, opposed the sale of the bonds outright and asked a financier present if gubernatorial opposition to the plan could affect the terms of the financing.

As the session began, workers started putting test wells in on the west side of the Capitol, and some of the grounds were fenced off in anticipation of construction.

Facts on the ground. And then Otter's order.

Otter has made few public statements on his intentions. He met with fans of the underground wings last week to hear their pitch but has not put forth a plan of his own.

He supports renovating the current Statehouse, part of the $130 million plan, and presumably would like to see the old Ada County Courthouse and Borah building put to better use.

While Otter touted spending the money on education in his campaign ads, Moscow Republican Sen. Gary Schroeder opposed the underground wings on those very grounds.

"I thought that our children were more important than adding wings to the Capitol or whatever," Schroeder said. "We're very good in this state at building new buildings, but not so good at taking care of old ones."

But Schroeder said he thinks Otter went too far in overstepping the Legislature. Others opposed the underground wings because of the high water table, the lack of detailed plans and the fact that, well, they have enough room already.

"I think people became infatuated with the plan," Boise Democratic Sen. Mike Burkett said. "We just don't need that much space, not when we've got two buildings empty."

Stories in the Spokesman Review, Idaho Statesman and Associated Press frequently mention the overflowing hearing rooms, crammed legislative offices and crumbling building.

But, walk into the Capitol on many days and you'll have no problem getting a seat in a committee meeting.

Kick the marble and feel its solid response.

Stegner, who is credited with introducing the idea of underground wings, says the cost of the wings is on par with the cost of moving some state or legislative functions across the street to the old Ada County Courthouse or the Borah building, both state owned buildings that are barely used.

Of course, that leaves those buildings still begging for a refurbishing and tenants down the road.

Legislators decided several years ago that it was a priority to keep Statehouse business in the Statehouse and not force anyone to walk across 6th street to their office or to a committee meeting.

Perhaps this is the root of the first big Legislative-Executive battle of 2007: legislators don't even have to leave their chambers for lunch whereas during his six years in Washington, Otter had to walk across Independence Avenue any time he needed to vote.