BOISE, Idaho - High above Idaho's capital on a hillock of deep green Kentucky bluegrass, $260,000 in renovations to the governor's mansion are nearly complete: New carpets are installed, muted, tasteful tones of sage are on the walls and the bedroom sets the state got on sale are in place.
About the only thing missing from the governor's mansion, donated in 2004 by the potato baron J.R. Simplot but vacant ever since, is the governor.
That's because Idaho's Republican chief executive, C.L. "Butch" Otter, has refused to live in a house that once belonged to his former father-in-law. Otter divorced Gay Simplot, the late billionaire's daughter, in 1993.
Since 1998, Idaho governors have received a housing allowance, paid for from a $1.5 million fund to help defray the governor's housing costs. Since he took office in January 2007, Otter has collected a $4,500 monthly allowance - more than $110,000 so far - to live at his riverside ranch west of town.
But the cost of maintaining the Simplot mansion - including watering and mowing its gigantic expanse of lawn, cut through the middle by an artificial waterfall that state officials have yet to turn on - has topped $100,000 a year, draining the fund.
That's one reason why Otter's allowance has won him increasing criticism from newspapers, the public and even state workers who are under pressure after budget cuts ordered by Otter starting last year when the economy tanked.
"Everywhere we've been, whether it's been up north, in Lewiston or in the eastern part of the state, we hear people grumbling," said Andrew Hanhardt, president of the Idaho Association of Government Employees.
"It is ridiculous to subsidize his living expenses," the Idaho Statesman newspaper opined.
Idaho real-estate agent Brian Brumpton erected a "Why are we paying for an empty mansion?" site in cyberspace to complain.
"The house is empty, and he's still taking the stipend," Brumpton said. "It's ridiculous."
Otter, who is one of a handful of Republican governors who says he may turn down some of Idaho's share of the $787 billion federal stimulus on concerns it will grow state government irresponsibly, points out he never asked for a governor's mansion. He told The Associated Press that he'll forego the monthly assistance once the mansion is fit to be occupied.
He still won't live there.
The fact is, former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne left Idaho with a bit of a housing crisis when he bolted for the U.S. Interior Secretary job in 2006.
In 2004 Kempthorne, with much fanfare, accepted the $2.1 million, 7,400-square-foot hilltop abode from Simplot, to be used as a governor's residence. Idaho was one of six states at the time without official digs, and Kempthorne mounted a $3 million private fundraising effort to spruce up a dated interior that needed repairs.
But the campaign sputtered when Kempthorne left Boise.
Kempthorne, in Boise in early January, says he regrets the failure of his plan to make the mansion a showcase like those in many other states. Among other ideas, his vision included a scheme to sell naming rights for rooms to Idaho companies.
"It can be a tool for economic development, it can help philanthropically," Kempthorne said. "There's a lot of different uses it can be put to. But that's for the current people to decide."
One problem, former Kempthorne aides have said, was he had to recuse himself from potential financial entanglements starting in March 2006, the month President George W. Bush nominated him to be Interior Secretary.
What's more, two Boise executives he put in charge of raising cash were distracted. They've since sold their companies to larger rivals.