BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A proposed law to allow state agencies, boards and commissions to go around the Idaho attorney general’s office to hire private-practice attorneys headed to the full House on Thursday.
The House State Affairs Committee approved the measure despite opposition from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and five former attorneys general. It also overcame concerns the bill failed to realistically estimate the cost to taxpayers of hiring private attorneys.
The bill also removes a requirement that outside attorneys be screened by the attorney general’s office and a board comprised of the governor and three other statewide-elected officials before doing legal work for the state.
Backers complained the attorney general’s office frequently interprets the law contrary to what lawmakers wanted to hear.
“It’s very well possible that the attorney that’s hired by an agency may have a different opinion than the attorney general has,” said Republican Rep. John Vander Woude, one of the bill’s sponsors.
The former attorneys general in an opinion piece recently distributed to news outlets around the state said changing the current system would violate the Idaho Constitution, inviting a court challenge the former attorneys general said they would support.
“If the bill is motivated by the view that Attorney General Wasden deserves punishment for giving sound legal advice, rather than telling legislators what they want to hear, it won’t work,” they wrote.
The former attorneys general said the proposed law would return the state to a system in place before 1995 they described as wasteful and disjointed.
Democratic Rep. Chris Mathias, who voted against the legislation, said the lawyers at the attorney general’s office developed expertise in their areas, and that, by his calculations, the average pay for the 127 deputy attorneys general working under Wasden was on average $45 an hour.
“That’s the best value I’ve ever seen in my life,” Mathias said.
Republican Rep. Heather Scott suggested that state attorneys, because they were paid less than private-practice attorneys, who can make hundreds of dollars an hour, were therefore not as good.
Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane, who testified against the bill, defended himself and the other 126 deputy attorneys general. He noted state attorneys have argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, teach at law schools, and are sought to give presentations at national organizations.
“I would put our attorneys up against any attorney in the nation,” Kane said. “The people who work for our office work so because they have a passion for public service. They believe in the state of Idaho, and they are here to represent the state of Idaho with passion, vigor, intellect, acumen and accuracy.”
He also said having that many attorneys offered a wealth of knowledge that could be shared and ideas bounced around. Deputy attorneys general are typically assigned to specific agencies and become familiar with the legal details of that agency.
Republican Rep. Bruce Skaug, who also sponsored the bill, said approving the measure would create a free-market system where agencies could choose their own lawyer without going through the attorney general’s office.
“There is a tried and true free market truism that competition makes a better result and a lower cost,” Skaug said. “I hear the term from our good attorney general that ‘I call balls and strikes.’ Well, sometimes I want to hire an attorney who can throw a curveball, a knuckleball, a changeup, because I need that 100 miles an hour fastball on my cases.”
Skaug said backers of the bill would work to create a more realistic fiscal note estimating costs to the state.