Bills to defund Idaho GOP attorney general’s office are dead

April 13, 2021 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two bills that cleared the Idaho House with overwhelming Republican support to significantly defund Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office for not being sufficiently partisan have died in the Senate.

The powerful Republican chairwoman and chairman of Senate committees with control of the bills said Monday that they will not get hearings and are dead. They said the legislation could needlessly cost Idaho taxpayers millions of dollars if turned into law.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden declined to join 17 other GOP attorneys general in the legal action in December challenging the presidential election, seen by many as a loyalty test to former President Donald Trump and backed by nearly every top-level Idaho Republican. Wasden cited his respect for states rights and said he wouldn’t appreciate others meddling in Idaho elections.

Wasden, who was elected Idaho’s top lawyer in 2003, has called some legislation from conservative lawmakers unconstitutional. The state has paid over $3 million in legal fees since 1995 — some after ignoring his advice about bills he warned were unconstitutional that became law and were invalidated by court challenges.

Wasden also angered Republicans by defending state-owned land and a constitutional mandate to maximize the state’s profits from logging, grazing and mining leases on that land to benefit schoolchildren. That can mean higher prices for those sectors in mostly rural Idaho.

Legislation that passed the House would have prevented Wasden from representing Idaho’s interests in state lands. Another bill would have allowed state agencies to hire private attorneys instead of using attorneys from Wasden’s office.

Republican Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, who chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee, said she received many emails and calls from respected attorneys saying that the move would have added costs for taxpayers.

“Attorneys around Idaho do feel that the bill would cost the state so much more money,” she said.

Wasden has 127 deputy attorneys general that cost the state less than $60 an hour, on average. Some of the legislation put the cost of private attorneys at $250 an hour.

Opponents of the two bills said they would have essentially created a slush fund for political allies and Republican lawyers, costing the state millions of dollars in legal fees and possibly more if it loses in court.

Vick said his committee earlier this year rejected a similar bill that originated on the Senate side, also involving Wasden’s office representing the Idaho Department of Lands and its management of 3,900 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) of state-owned land.

Vick said he decided there was no reason to have another hearing on the same issue.

“I do think we need to look at how deputy attorney generals affect policy and drive policy in some of the agencies,” he said. “My personal opinion is that I don’t know that that’s the best approach, but I think the issue needs to be continued to be studied.”

Scott Graf, Wasden’s spokesman, said the attorney general’s office had no comment.

The Legislature has not yet approved Wasden’s budget. The House previously rejected his office’s budget, but could vote on a revised version this week.