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BOISE — After the Idaho Press reported that the state spent a conservatively estimated $2 million on paid administrative leave in less than a year’s time, several lawmakers are calling for more review of the practice.

State agencies paid out 82,000 hours of administrative leave in 11 months, to nearly 3,000 employees.

Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, who co-chairs the joint legislative committee on Change in Employee Compensation, or CEC, said, “The CEC Committee will ask for some specifics on paid administrative leave when we meet, and at least … a report as to what’s been going on and what we can do to kind of keep a handle on that. I think the governor has expressed similar sentiments, so we’d be in support of him.”

“This data is concerning,” said Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, who serves on the Senate Commerce & Human Resources Committee. “I hope we will see an in-depth report on the number of and reasons for these administrative leaves, and also the people and policies which currently guide these decisions. Questions that come to mind: Are there reasonable changes in policy to allow these people to continue to work, either from home or in their usual work space, during the investigation? If they are found responsible for the problem, is their administrative leave pay returned? I believe there will be much greater oversight of these decisions now that this information is public.”

Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, said, “I am very concerned about this issue, especially as to the policy and the overall cost.”

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said, “If there are reforms that need to be made, I would be willing to look at them.”

Nearly 3,000 state employees received some amount of paid administrative leave between July 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019, in amounts ranging from less than an hour up to weeks or months, according to the Idaho Press’ analysis of state payroll records kept by the Idaho State Controller. Six agencies had at least one employee on paid leave for five months or more during the 11-month period the Idaho Press examined. Ninety state employees had more than four weeks of paid leave; 73 of those had more than five weeks.

Based on the state’s average classified salary of $22.97 per hour, a conservative estimate of the cost of the administrative leave over those 11 months is $2 million.

The most common reason for extended paid leave — during which employees retain all benefits and continue to accrue vacation and retirement — is for investigation of allegations against an employee.

Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, noted that the confidential nature of personnel actions means administrative leave matters often fly under the radar.

“You have pointed to a subject that honestly has not hit the JFAC radar during my seven-year tenure and not one brought to our attention this past year as co-chair,” he said.

WITH OFFICE SPACE AT A PREMIUM...

Office space on the first floor of the state Capitol is at such a premium that there’s currently a pending lawsuit between GOP legislative leaders and the state treasurer, also a Republican. Lawmakers are seeking to boot the treasurer’s staff out so state representatives can have more office space, rather than just basement cubicles as they have now during legislative sessions.

So it’s a little ironic that a small office space on that same floor, over in the Legislative Services office area, has been unusable as an office in the 10 years since the state Capitol was renovated and expanded.

That’s because the space somehow didn’t get the appropriate heating and cooling systems to make it suitable for office use. Without that, it’s been used for staging or storage.

The state Capitol Commission met recently and considered the issue, which involves room W135 on the first floor of the Capitol. Initial estimates to install a suitable HVAC unit there — housed in the required mahogany-finish box to match the Capitol — were about $50,000, and that’s now risen to $85,000. Nevertheless, the commission voted unanimously to install the unit.

That means one more, roughly 250-square-foot office space available for use.

“Space is at a premium,” said Eric Milstead, legislative services director, a member of the commission.

NOT THE SMELL OF MONEY

Barry Miller, deputy administrator of the Division of Public Works for the state, also reported back to the commission on the “JFAC odor investigation.” That was an investigation into complaints from several members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee partway through the legislative session of feeling nauseous or allergic in the joint committee’s ornate hearing room, where state budgets are set in intense, sometimes hourslong meetings.

I spend quite a bit of time in that room myself, and have noticed a light but unpleasant mildew odor since the carpet was replaced years ago.

Tests were conducted in the room during this year’s legislative session, and results came back from consultants after the session had ended.

“They didn’t find any known allergens in the air,” Miller reported. “There were some air fresheners in adjacent offices,” he said, which consultants suggested removing. They also suggested increasing the amount of fresh air that flows into the room through the HVAC system.

“So we have done that,” Miller said. “We’ll continue to monitor this next session for any issues.”

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.

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