- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The Idaho state controller spends most of the time making sure the state’s bills are paid and finances are in order, overseeing a staff of about 90 who use a computer system so outdated that lawmakers are considering a mammoth and costly replacement.

The job also comes with a vote on the five-person Idaho Land Board, and that’s a significant reason why State Controller Brandon Woolf is being challenged in the Republican primary by Todd Hatfield.

Policy decisions there determine proceeds from Idaho’s 2.5 million-acre endowment land portfolio. Dabbling in commercial ventures in recent years that compete with private businesses has caused friction. Both candidates strike similar themes heading into the May 20 primary.

“I firmly believe direct ownership of commercial property is not the alternative,” said Woolf, the youngest statewide office holder in Idaho at 41.

“The state doesn’t pay property taxes, they have an unfair advantage,” said Hatfield, 55. “The state should be protecting businesses, not going into unfair competition against them.”

Hatfield calls a February Land Board vote suspending the buying of commercial property “an election-year calculation to get re-elected.”

A less public problem facing the controller the next four years will be installing a new computer system to keep 90 state agencies running - or keeping the current system going if lawmakers decline to spend the money. Lawmakers did approve $250,000 for a study of the problem.

Woolf joined the controller’s office in 1997 as an intern and rose through the ranks to become Donna Jones’ deputy chief of staff. He was named temporary controller in July 2012 after Jones, a former six-term state lawmaker from Payette, was involved in a serious automobile accident.

In October 2012, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter appointed Woolf state controller after Jones decided to focus on her recovery and retire from elected office. She has endorsed Woolf for state controller.

The job thrust Woolf into the politics of the Land Board, but he’s more comfortable talking about the time-consuming intricacies and challenges of being the state’s chief fiscal officer. That job oversees three divisions: statewide accounting, computer services that has the state’s largest data center, and statewide payroll. He’s had a hand in keeping the aging system going since his intern days.

“I grew up on a dairy farm and I relate it to using duct tape and baling wire to make it work,” said Woolf, who grew up in Preston in eastern Idaho. He went to Utah State University for a bachelor’s degree in political science, and obtained an MBA from Boise State in 2006.

Hatfield has an associate’s degree in accounting from Champlain College in Vermont. He moved west to Nevada and then, in 1998, to McCall, transforming the residential home construction company he started in 1981 into a log home business. He started Idaho Grain and Flour a year and a half ago after the tough economy made the log home business difficult.

His conversations about the state controller job tend to arrive back at the Land Board.

“Well, that’s where the policy making comes into play, and I see where we could improve it,” he said. “Through the Land Board, we could have a big influence.”

Woolf started the Transparent Idaho website in January 2013, providing information about the state’s finances through hundreds of reports, charts and graphs. He said improvements are planned, include the ability to do searches for particular information. But he said some of that will depend on whether the state buys a new computer system.

Hatfield said the website hides the state’s long-term debt that comes mainly in the form of bonds. The website lists the amounts, but Hatfield disagrees with the accounting procedure that shows dollar amounts in thousands, omitting the last three digits in large numbers.

“It’s written out that our debt is fourteen-hundred-million dollars, so fourteen-hundred-million sounds a lot more palatable than one-point-four billion,” he said, citing the $1.4 billion from the state’s annual financial report for fiscal year 2013.

Woolf touts his own money-saving measures, noting the office created Transparent Idaho within the existing budget.

“Our biggest endeavor is to meet the greatest need with the least amount of money,” he said.

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