Idaho officials need to get serious about an official residence for the governor - or, failing that, they need to end the increasingly dubious practice of padding the governor's salary in the disguise of a "housing allowance."
Goodness knows the state is frugal about most things - look at the parsimonious spending on public schools, higher education and highways - but the Governor's Housing Committee (there really is such a thing) seems to display little compunction about spending thousands of dollars a year on a housing allowance for the chief executive.
The Housing Committee - four legislators and the director of the Department of Administration - voted earlier this month to increase the housing allowance new Gov. Brad Little will receive next year. The new amount is $4,551 per month or $54,612 per year, a figure that is more than the average Idaho salary. And for what?
To their credit, the two Democratic legislators on the committee voiced concern about the practice of what amounts to paying the governor to live in his own home and ultimately voted against the increase. Idaho hasn't had a governor's residence since the state sold the old official residence in Boise's north end in 1989 after then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus said he preferred to live in his own Boise home. At this point, the state started providing a housing allowance.
The old house, built in 1914 by architect Walter Pierce - incidentally the chairman of the committee that oversaw construction of the Idaho Capitol Building - had seen better days by the 1980s. Warped doors didn't work well and one first lady complained that plugging two appliances into the same kitchen outlet was a sure way to blow a fuse.
Andrus occasionally used the place for a quiet meeting away from the Capitol. I remember one time when he and then-Sen.Jim McClure convened in the dining room, and away from prying eyes in the Statehouse, to work on a plan for an Idaho wilderness bill.
The original Idaho residence - it would be an overstatement to call it a "mansion" - was purchased by the Republican-led Legislature when Benewah County physician C.A. "Doc" Robins was elected governor. Robins was not a wealthy guy, unlike recent Idaho governors, and needed a place to live. The Legislature obliged.
Now Idaho is one of only six states without an official residence. It should. I've had the good fortune to visit several official residences in other states where the governor's house is often a historic building that reflects the culture of the state.
The Utah residence, for example, is a marvelous old house, beautifully restored to its 1902 style and located in a historic Salt Lake City neighborhood.
The Michigan governor has the use of two houses, including a summer place in a marvelous setting on Mackinac Island where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.
A better approach for Idaho, despite what the naysayers have long held, would be to actually provide an official residence for the governor and devote the cash that currently goes to padding the chief executive's salary to maintaining a facility that would soon enough become an iconic part of the capital city.
Dirk Kempthorne tried to accomplish that goal with what turned out to be an ill-considered notion to have the state accept J.R. Simplot's donation of his monstrosity on the hill in Boise and convert it to an official residence. The house, with all the charm of a Soviet-era apartment building, was a money pit. After costing the state a bundle, the property was returned to the Simplot family who improved the aesthetics of the Boise foothills by demolishing the place.
Another property in the foothills and long envisioned as the site of a governor's residence was wisely abandoned to a higher and better use as open space.
Still, despite this star-crossed history, with a little effort and not that much money, Idaho could set out to acquire a suitable executive residence, a place where governors would want to live and entertain. An appropriate location would be along one of Boise's stately and historic avenues - Harrison or Warm Springs. Locate a suitable structure, hopefully with some history and Idaho style, set aside some money in an endowment to maintain the home and devote a room or two to showcasing the history of Idaho's governors.
With the current arrangement, Idaho will just keep paying thousands of dollars annually to its governor for housing, while the state accumulates no equity and no real benefit. Some day the state may have a governor who is not independently wealthy or a near-Boise resident and may actually need a place to live.
Little, like every governor in recent times, wants nothing to do with this conversation and says he plans to live in a condo owned by a subsidiary of a company owned by his family.
For the more than $200,000 the state will hand him in housing allowances during the next four years Idaho could make a nice down payment on a real house. It would be money better spent.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.