Eye On Boise

Otter defends his stimulus spending plan

Gov. Butch Otter has sent out guest opinion to Idaho media defending his proposal for use of federal stimulus money, saying he wants to "separate fact from fiction" and that he isn't "callously choosing roads over children and transportation over education." Click below to read the full op-ed piece.


SEPARATING FACT FROM FICTION ON THE STIMULUS PLAN

By Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter
    
It’s time to separate fact from fiction and clear up some misconceptions about my plan for using the federal stimulus money.

Fiction:  “Otter wants to preside over a dismantling of Idaho public schools” by callously choosing roads over children and transportation over education.  

Fact:  Public schools will be getting $260.4 million over the next three years, distributed according to guidelines spelled out in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Much of that money will go to the chronically underfunded needs of Special Education and Title I services for schools in economically disadvantaged areas.  And it will provide local school districts with greater short-term budget flexibility to address other needs – like teacher salaries.

The $260.4 million in K-12 funding does not include additional savings that Idaho schools will realize – and be able to apply elsewhere in their budgets – from energy efficiency programs financed by stimulus funding.  

Meanwhile, a total of $200.3 million was allocated for Idaho’s transportation needs, providing for thousands of construction and related jobs – and even unrelated jobs as that money makes its way into the economy – under the strict provisions of a federal stimulus plan that Congress designed specifically to preserve and create jobs.   

Fiction:  Otter is heartlessly sacrificing state employees by maintaining his call for a 5-percent reduction in state government’s personnel costs, even though this federal “windfall” could eliminate that need.

Fact:  We cannot cover long-term, ongoing expenses with one-time money. Salaries and other personnel costs for state employees are a continuing expense. Once the stimulus money is gone, we will be left with the same budget dilemma we have now. The old saying “penny wise and pound foolish” could not be more appropriate.

Now, as you probably know, my first reaction to the discussion back in Washington, D.C., about sending billions of dollars to the states was skepticism. I talked with members of Idaho’s congressional delegation, all of whom opposed the plan. They agreed that we must not put Idaho in the position that the federal government has made a way of life – borrowing against our children’s and grandchildren’s inheritance to live day to day.

That is more than a personal philosophy. Unlike the federal government, the Idaho Constitution requires us to have a balanced budget. We can’t just print more money when we run into problems. We have to be frugal and responsible stewards of the taxpayers’ money.

But Congress approved the stimulus package anyway, including provisions that said if we don’t use it, the money goes to some other state and Idaho taxpayers will still be paying for it – now and into the future.  After talking with many of my fellow governors, I determined not to put Idahoans in the position of being unable to address our legitimate one-time needs.

However, I have been clear from the start that I accept this money with great trepidation. I have said repeatedly that we must not obligate ourselves here in Idaho to continuing expenditures based on programs or services that are started or expanded with this emergency cash infusion.

The reality is that I have some discretion – with legislative concurrence – over the use of less than $45 million of the $1.2 billion that is available to Idaho. That amounts to about 3.6 percent of the total.  Given those limitations, all I am proposing to do is what people on Main Streets and in families all over Idaho are doing – tightening their belts.  The people we serve are doing it; state government must not be exempt.

If our economy turns around sooner than expected, we will be in a good position to continue addressing the legitimate needs of state government.  But in the meantime, my preference is to apply this limited amount of money primarily to creating private sector jobs and opportunities to build the infrastructure for our long-term prosperity rather than protecting state government jobs with taxpayers’ money.

And there is one more thing to clear up:

Fiction:  Otter cynically calls for “sitting on” stimulus money in order to keep more public school funding in reserve this year so he can use it to bail schools out next year if the recession continues, in order to avoid raising taxes or taking other drastic measures in an election year.

Fact:  We simply do not know how much worse this economic downturn will get or how long it will last. That’s why the federal stimulus funding is being allocated over three years. It is far better, wiser and more fiscally responsible in my judgment to continue planning for the worst.  Yes, it is raining; but we don’t know how much more rain is on the way.   A lot of people are losing their jobs these days. Their families don’t make ends meet, any more than we can, by spending all their savings immediately and then hoping for someone to bail them out – whether it is local taxpayers through a school override levy or Congress by spending everyone’s tax dollars.  

I understand the concerns of those who want to keep everyone whole now and let the future take care of itself. But my responsibilities – and those of the Legislature – go beyond next payday, the next budget or the next election.  As public servants, our vision and our public policies must be focused instead on the next generation.

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