Idaho’s new state controller says he is unlikely to support a change in policy that allowed the state Land Board’s controversial purchase of a commercial business two years ago.
Controller Brandon Woolf told Idaho Reporter.com that he supports his former boss’s vote to buy Boise-based Affordable Storage, a for-profit enterprise, and to direct the profits to the Department of Lands endowment funds accounts. “Had I been on the Land Board at the time of the Affordable Storage purchase, I would have voted as Controller Jones did,” Woolf said in a telephone interview.
Woolf was chosen by Gov. Butch Otter to fill the current term of Donna Jones, who announced her retirement Monday. Jones said her recovery from a May 25 automobile accident could take an additional two years, and, consequently, she wanted to leave her position as controller immediately.
Speaking at a Capitol press conference Monday, Otter characterized Woolf as an “Idaho kid” whose career in the controller’s office is “a great success story in and of itself.”
In his own remarks, Woolf acknowledged that while he is currently completing the remainder of Jones’ term (subject to the approval of the state Senate), he intends to run for his own term of office in 2014.
Woolf’s appointment drew both praise, and curiosity, from two elected officials.
“He (Woolf) seems like a logical choice to take over for Donna Jones, given that he’s already had 15 years of experience at the controller’s office,” noted Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls.
Rep. Grant Burgoyne, a Boise Democrat, told Idaho Reporter.com that “it would be speculative of me to comment on Ms. Jones’ retirement. We’ve all been aware of her accident and we want the best for her, but I cannot comment on the timing of these decisions.”
In recent years Jones and other Land Board members have been criticized for investing in commercial property in competition with the private sector. But those board members maintain that the Idaho Constitution stipulates that the public lands must be managed “in such manner as will secure the maximum long term financial return to the institution to which granted,” and this is said to imply a “fiduciary responsibility” for the board members.
The Land Board has sought to uphold this fiduciary responsibility by taking funds derived from the sale of public lands, and using them to purchase for-profit business entities and commercial properties. IdahoReporter.com reported in late 2010 that the Land Board had voted unanimously to purchase the Affordable Storage business.
Months later in 2011, Otter told IdahoReporter.com that this purchase was a “mistake.” Superintendent Tom Luna expressed regrets as well. The three other members of the Land Board—Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and then-Controller Donna Jones—all stood by their “yes” votes.
Earlier this year, the Land Board purchased a commercial building in downtown Boise and had arranged a lease agreement with 10 Barrel Brewing Company of Bend, Ore. While state controller spokesman Scott Phillips rejected the notion that the Land Board has been expanding its reach in private enterprise, Burgoyne disagrees.
“The Land Board seems to have adopted a policy of injecting itself into the private sector,” Burgoyne stated. “They have now come down to the point of trying to dictate to those in charge of the operations of the Affordable Storage business, even to the point of dictating who is and who is not employed there.”
Given Woolf’s announcement that he will run for his own term as controller in 2014, Simpson noted that “it is now especially important that he (Woolf) is clear about what he thinks the appropriate role of the Land Board is.” Simpson offered a word of caution about the board. “We need to be very careful with what we deem to be within the so-called ‘fiduciary responsibilities’ of the state. There are good intentions involved with their current approach, but if we’re not careful we can end up doing what President Obama has done with General Motors.”
Both Simpson and Burgoyne supported legislation in 2012 in the House that sought to limit the Land Board’s purchases of private sector businesses. The bill passed in the House 63-3, but was never heard in the Senate.