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Ada County continues its lobbying relationship for the upcoming legislative session

an aerial view at dusk of the outside of the Ada County headquarters building in Boise.
Ada County

Ada County Board of County Commissioners last week approved spending $65,000 on a legislative specialist - more commonly known as lobbyists. The vote divided the three-member board, with Chairman Rod Beck and Commissioner Tom Dayley voting to approve the contract. Commissioner Ryan Davidson voted against it.

“The only people who don't have representatives are the taxpayers,” Dayley said after the commission meeting. “We have an obligation to protect the interests of the taxpayers of Ada County.”

The no-bid contract was awarded to Boise’s Westerberg, Aston and Associates. That’s a long-time Boise firm led by Russell Westerberg, who served in the statehouse in the 1970s.

The county has retained a lobbyist in the statehouse since 2018 according to commissioner Davidson, who wrote an op-ed criticizing the practice as wasteful spending.

“We also do have Idaho Association of Counties who lobbies on behalf of all counties, which includes Ada County,” Davidson said during the hearing. At the least, Davidson said during the hearing, he’d like to see the contract go through a bidding process.

Ada and Power Counties are the only ones to hire lobbyists on their own. Specialist Brody Aston, who represents Ada County at the statehouse, said the existing relationship began five years ago, but the county has occasionally hired lobbyists in previous years.

Several other public entities also retain lobbyists according to the 2023 Idaho Greenbook, which tracks registrations. Boise, Meridian, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls are the only current cities to do so, though a group of smaller tourism-dependent cities have their own legislative specialist. The state’s major universities have lobbyists, too.

Dayley said Ada County’s main legislative priorities this coming year include getting more control over local health board nominations and budgets, repealing a law allowing nonprofit hospitals to be exempt from property taxes without opening their books, and improving the prisoner-sharing agreement between the state and Ada County.

Commissioners have often pointed to the large number of state inmates held at Ada County Jail, as a primary reason for its overcrowding. Per-inmate compensation paid by the state also doesn’t come close to covering the county’s actual cost.

“That's where we need to actually point out to the legislature the inequity of that for county government, because in our county, like all counties, the basic source of revenue is property tax,” Dayley said.

The legislative session begins Monday, Jan. 8, 2024.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Aston.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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