Idaho state controller draws one GOP opponent, no Democrat

With no Democrat in the race, the GOP primary in May figures to be decisive.

adutton@idahostatesman.comApril 26, 2014 

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The position of state controller is by nature a behind-the-scenes job, rarely grabbing headlines. But the controller holds the wallet for the state of Idaho. If the office doesn't run like clockwork, it could mean 25,000 people who work for the state don't get paychecks. It could mess up the flow of $8 billion of state transactions each year.

Just two people are competing for the seat this year. Barring a write-in winner, voters in the Republican primary - not voters in November's general election - will decide who will be Idaho's chief fiscal officer for a four-year term.

Incumbent Brandon Woolf was appointed in July 2012 by Gov. Butch Otter to succeed Donna Jones, who retired.

But he has spent most of his adult life working in the office, starting with an internship after college in the mid-1990s.

His challenger is businessman Todd Hatfield, who says the controller's vote on the Idaho Land Board is a major reason he is running for the office. Hatfield, who owns a log cabin business and a grain and flour mill, went before the board in 2009 to request a hardship forgiveness of $203,000 he still owed on a 2006 timber sale. It was the first such request the board had received, and the board granted him $70,619.

"That's what got me interested" in running for the job, Hatfield said in an interview.

Hatfield also said he wants more transparency in state spending. He ran in 2010 against Jones and received 44 percent of the primary vote.

STATE SPENDING

The current payroll and accounting system has been in use for longer than Woolf has worked there. It uses a mainframe computer built in the 1980s and repaired and augmented since then. Woolf says it's obsolete. He says it's time to get the system - which other state agencies use, too - into this century.

The Legislature granted Woolf's office $250,000 this year to study the most efficient way to replace the system, which would be the largest IT project ever for the office and potentially the largest in the state, he said.

The controller doesn't have much say in what the state spends money on, but Woolf says he has demonstrated fiscal responsibility in his own office by not using $2 million of his agency's spending authority.

For example, he tapped the office's 90 employees and savings from cutbacks on travel to create a transparency website.

Transparent.idaho.gov shows salaries for state employees, agency spending by category and other public information Woolf said Idahoans often ask to see. The website took about $28,000 from the office's existing budget to build.

That's not enough, says Hatfield.

He cites an April report in which the U.S. Public Interest Research Group gave Idaho one of three "F" grades in the country for online budget and spending transparency.

The website's deficiencies, for the most part, are search-function limits and a lack of information about quasi-public agencies, the group says.

Getting to an "A" would require the Legislature to provide more than $175,000 a year, Hatfield said. He said the money could be found.

"I want to raise that grade by achieving an easy-to-navigate website for the public to see how and where their hard-earned money is spent," he said.

THE LAND BOARD

The state controller is one of five statewide elected officials on the Land Board, which oversees management of millions of acres of state land. The use of that land provides revenue to public schools - distributions total $31 million this fiscal year - and other institutions. Woolf said Land Board duties take 10 percent to 20 percent of his time.

Hatfield has faulted Woolf and the board for buying commercial property as an investment. Hatfield said the government should not directly compete with the private sector. He wrote a resolution in 2010 calling for the practice to stop.

"I would say they are breaching their fiduciary responsibility," Hatfield said.

The board in February voted to suspend the part of its policy that allows such acquisitions. Woolf told the Statesman that he supports "a prudent divestiture plan for trust assets" and does not favor the state owning commercial real estate.

Hatfield said his experience in the log cabin industry gives him knowledge to increase timber revenue. He would try to change how the Land Board conducts timber sales, arguing that some timber should be set aside for small-scale buyers.

As for his request to be off the hook for part of the 2006 timber sale, Hatfield said it shouldn't cast doubt on his ability to manage money.

The problem arose, he said, when the economic downturn pummeled the log cabin and timber industries. A handshake deal with a local mill fell apart, he said, and selling timber to mills farther away would have cost too much because of fuel prices.

"Everybody was telling me to file bankruptcy and go that route, and I refused to do it," he said.

He put the cabin business up for sale - though he didn't end up selling it - along with equipment and the property it sat on. The Hatfields sold their home in McCall and now rent a house in Eagle, where his daughter attends school.

The controller's salary is $101,150 a year and will rise to $102,667 in 2015.

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448,Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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