Editor's note: This is the next in a periodic series on contested races and contests on Idaho's November general election ballot.
BOISE - Idaho State Controller Brandon Woolf has long been concerned about an erosion of trust in public institutions. "So I'm seeking to address that erosion through greater openness and access," he said.
That's why in 2013 he launched the Transparent Idaho website, giving citizens easy access to extensive data about the state's finances and workforce that's automatically updated every night. He's continued to build it from there, and now is working on his long-term vision of bringing together all state, county, city and school district data on a single, easily searchable site for citizens.
"A lot of people talk about transparency, but I have championed it and delivered it from the moment I stepped into office to today," Woolf said. He's now seeking reelection to a third four-year term as state controller.
Woolf faces two opponents on the November ballot, but neither have campaigned at all, and both appear to simply be placeholders for their parties.
Constitution Party candidate Miste Gardner didn't respond to a reporter's inquiry about her candidacy. She's not raised or spent a cent on her campaign; has no campaign website or other campaign activity; and her Facebook page, which the state Constitution Party offers a link to, identifies her as a "news personality," doesn't mention running for state controller, and as of Friday, hadn't had a new post since March 17.
Democratic candidate Dianna David also hasn't raised or spent anything on her campaign; has no campaign website or other campaign activity; and her official listed campaign phone number is the number for the executive director of the state party. There's also no picture of her or information about her on the state party's online voter guide.
Avery Roberts, communications director for the Idaho Democratic Party, acknowledged that David was a placeholder candidate. In an emailed statement, Roberts said, "We have a lot of smart and competent folks throughout Idaho stepping up to run statewide and in their communities. We're also realistic about the political landscape here in Idaho and that's why Idaho Democrats are investing in the long game. We are building a bench of candidates, starting at the local level, and this year we're on track to raise more money and reach more voters than in the history of our party."
Woolf is a Republican who was unopposed in the primary, and also ran unopposed in both the primary and general elections in 2018 and in the general election in 2014. He started working in the state controller's office as an intern in 1997, working his way up through an array of positions there over the years, and holds an MBA from Boise State University and a political science degree from Utah State University.
Asked why voters should choose him over his opponents, Woolf said he believes his "experience, integrity … the knowledge gained through being here in the office would help set me apart from my opponents. I feel that we've shown and proved what we've done. … We have a great thing going here at the controller's office, and to keep that calm, steady hand going forward is necessary and needed."
He added, "We do a great job of making sure our finances here in Idaho are safe and secure and are done legally. I think that's something we should be proud of, and that we should become better at and continue to improve."
The duties of Idaho's state controller include serving as the state's chief fiscal officer, paying all obligations of the state, processing payroll for all state employees, maintaining centralized financial management reporting and accounting systems, and publishing the state's comprehensive annual financial reports, as well as serving on the state Land Board, acting as secretary for the state Board of Examiners, and managing the state government's largest data center.
Boise State University political scientist Jaclyn Ketttler said, "I think in this case, it's perhaps not especially surprising that it isn't a race that these other parties are dedicating lot of resources to, given the fact that the incumbent is viewed as very competent, it's not an office that gets a lot of attention, it's often overlooked. The other parties may be focusing their resources on other races."
However, she said, "I think for parties trying to perhaps grow their presence … even if it's a race that you maybe don't perceive to be competitive at this time, it can make sense to have a candidate on the ballot. … Without candidates to vote for, it's hard to judge how much support there might be down the road. So just having a presence up and down the ballot can be important for building a party."
Woolf, 49, is a native of Preston, the same eastern Idaho town where the hit movie "Napoleon Dynamite" was filmed, and was raised on a dairy farm that his family has continuously run for six generations. "We've been on the same farm for these 160-plus years, the same area there in Preston," he said.
An Eagle Scout and former student body president at Preston High School, he served a two-year Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission in Belgium and is fluent in Dutch. He married his third-grade sweetheart, Janalee, in 1994 and they have three children.
Woolf had just completed his undergraduate degree at Utah State University when then-state Controller J.D. Williams, who also is from Preston, asked him to come to work in the office as an intern while he pursued his master's degree at Boise State.
"I spent most of my time in the payroll division, ran the payroll for several years, and then I became the deputy chief of staff, and then I became chief of staff for (thenController) Donna Jones," he said. "And then Donna had that horrible accident 10 years ago in May, and she decided to retire, and Gov. Otter appointed me to finish her term. And then I ran for statewide office in 2014 and 2018 and am running again this year."
A self-described "data geek," he's never run for another office, and is passionate about the work of the state controller's office. "In the past, we always said our customers were the state employees, and we didn't really have that much of a touch with the outside, with the citizens. But through Transparent Idaho, we're truly able to see how we can help all Idahoans become more engaged and involved, and shine that bright light in the corners where all the money's being spent to help build that trust again."
Woolf lists his three top issues as: Trust and transparency; control against fraud; and innovation and collaboration.
On trust and transparency, he cites his work on both Transparent Idaho and the new Townhall Idaho, which makes all state agency public meetings available through a single website with searching and sorting capability and links.
"It's incredible where we are," he said. "We have the 90 state agencies on there, and we have for 10 years. My vision has always been to add" local government financial data as well, so there's "one place to go" to look up Idaho government data at all state and local levels.
"With HB 73 that passed in 2021, that became a reality," Woolf said. That bill, proposed by an interim committee studying Idaho's property tax system, proposed standardizing local government finances and reporting them on Transparent Idaho, so citizens and decision-makers can look across jurisdictions and make comparisons. It passed and was signed into law and funded.
"So what we're seeing now, is we have the financial data from the 44 counties … whether you're looking at Ada or Clark County or Franklin County," Woolf said. "We've worked with all 44 county clerks to standardize and make the data uniform."
"We're going through the quality assurance check on that right now," he said, "and we'll have that live here really soon. That gives one place to go on the website to do comparisons and to do best practices." He cited an example of comparing how one county sheriff 's department funds a particular function compared to another.
"We are super-excited," Woolf said. "We have the school districts," including data from 177 local education agencies. "We're going to be able to pull that in October. And then we'll get that quarterly going forward. And then we've kicked off our pilot with the cities," working on standardizing the data with a pilot project involving 15 Idaho cities, just as the controller's office earlier started with a pilot project involving eight counties. "So we can get the 200 cities and we can start pulling their data as well," he said. "I want it to be consumable for the average citizen, to quickly go in and look at that data."
His second issue, control against fraud, is "one of the most important duties of my office," Woolf said, including ensuring that all state expenditures of funds or management of funds occurs "in accordance with the law." If any agency violates that, he said, "We act to ensure that the state's money is protected."
He's also passionate about his third issue, collaboration and innovation. "Any organization that fails to innovate will remain stale and inefficient," declared Woolf, who was the youngest statewide elected official when he first won the controller's office in 2014. "To be conservative, we must innovate and lead." That, he said, is how the office can "deliver the service that our citizens expect efficiently."
Asked what he considers his top accomplishments in office, Woolf cited Transparent Idaho, "helping restore that trust and doing our small part here at the controller's office," along with a major replacement, upgrade and standardization of the state's accounting, payroll and financial systems.
That multi-year project, building the new Luma enterprise resource planning system, is replacing old mainframe accounting and payroll systems, while also bringing in finance, budget, procurement, human resources and payroll for all state agencies. "Everything's integrated," he said.
Through that system, the state is moving from a situation where more than 60 state agencies had their own accounting systems and sent files to the controller's office on a daily basis, to having all agencies on one system. "It's the uniformity, consolidation and standardization," Woolf said, along with increased accountability. "Our team is working on it to go live," which could happen as soon as January, but Woolf said at the latest will happen by next July.
He also just completed a term as president of the National Association of State Controllers.
"I think there's a great opportunity in state government partnering with local government to be more innovative with the technology and the data," Woolf said. That can help policy makers, he said. On property tax reform, for example, the newly integrated financial data can help show legislators and city and county leaders "if we dial this down or turn this up, what does that mean financially. And those are numbers that everyone can believe in and trust in. If we can help in that data-driven decision making, I think that would be our part in helping out the citizens and Idahoans in general."
"I'm running to continue to build the trust and confidence in the state of Idaho, and to continue to make Idaho one of the best-financially-managed states in the U.S.," he said.
Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.