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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 11, 2010

A budget full of cuts…

Gov. Butch Otter laid out a grim budget proposal for Idaho today, calling for cutting public education both this year and next, slashing 400 state jobs, phasing out state funding for Idaho Public TV over the next four years and more. Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com, and here’s a link to the full detail on Otter’s proposals: The text of his State of the State speech, and his full budget proposal, including documents, charts and graphs.

Among the details that can be quickly gleaned from these documents: For next year, FY 2011, Otter’s proposing a 1.2 percent cut in general-fund support for public schools; a 13.9 percent cut for colleges and universities; a 33.2 percent cut for Idaho Public Television; and an 11.2 percent boost for the Secretary of State. The reason: It’s an election year, and the figure reflects the one-time costs of holding statewide elections. The state’s prison system would see a 4.4 percent funding increase, while juvenile corrections would take a 9 percent cut. Public health districts would lose 11.1 percent of their state funding next year; Water Resources, 13.2 percent; DEQ, 9.2 percent; and the Department of Agriculture, 13.3 percent.

Allred: ‘A message of decline and retreat’

Keith Allred, former head of The Common Interest citizen group and now a Democratic candidate for governor, was in the Capitol rotunda after Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State address, and he was plenty critical. “Gov. Otter today delivered a message of decline and retreat,” Allred said. “Idahoans deserve better.” Click below to read his statement.

Guv fields questions after his speech

Gov. Butch Otter, answering questions from reporters in his office after his State of the State message, acknowledged that he’s set his proposed budget for next year at $83.4 million less than his economists expect from state tax revenues. “I just think that we’ve overguessed the last few years,” Otter said. He said he’d rather go in and replace money later with supplemental appropriations, than have to make more mid-year cuts. GOP legislative leaders said they, too, are skeptical about state tax revenues. “There’s just a real broad stripe of cautiousness,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke.

Otter also said his proposed elimination of the state Department of Parks and Recreation isn’t a sure thing; “right now … it’s conceptual,” he said. And he said he thought Idaho Public Television could survive his proposed four-year phase-out of state funding. “They really do have an opportunity to bring in outside money and to become self-sufficient,” he said.

Otter said, “To those folks who say, ‘Why are you cutting education?’ I say, Where else would you have me cut?” He said he believes dedicated teachers will still deliver good education, and local districts will do all they can.

Luna: Schools face difficult cuts

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna says Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget for next year cuts $138 million out of public schools, on top of the $68 million that was cut this year. “That’s $200 million over two years,” Luna said. He said he’ll try to help lawmakers find ways to make the cuts without hurting student achievement, but warned, “Education is economic development, and we have to ensure that we don’t do long-term damage because it will have an impact on the economy.”

Luna said he thinks the Legislature “is going to have to immediately draft legislation which gives districts ultimate flexibility” to cope with the cuts, including an unprecedented mid-year $27.9 million cut this year. “It’s going to be very difficult,” Luna said. “I think that’s why we have avoided up to this point. If this is the only option at this point, then we have to give schools the flexibility to deal with it.”

‘Tough issues before us’

At the conclusion of Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message, in which he called for a no-growth budget for next year, House Speaker Lawerence Denney responded, “Thank you, governor. We’ll look forward to working with you to solve the tough issues that are before us.”
The no-growth budget would rely on the same revenue figure as this year - $2.349 billion - even though state economists expect more, and would set a general-fund budget for 2011 of $2.455 billion, down from this year’s original state general-fund budget of $2.5066 billion. The budget calls for no salary increases for state employees; and spending all but $32.8 million of the state’s reserve funds by the end of fiscal year 2011. The governor does, however, want to fund the scheduled increase in the grocery tax credit, which will cost the state about $15 million.

Guv to lawmakers: Make it short

“Legislative sessions have averaged 82 days over the past 20 years or so,” the governor told lawmakers. “Last year factors beyond our control pushed us about 50 percent over that average. I’m sure you share my hope today that - by sticking to our principles and core values - we can balance the scales and make this among the shortest, most congenial, most collaborative and most productive legislative sessions in our history.” Lawmakers responded with applause.

Otter speaks out against mercury dumping, health-care reform bills

“I will not allow Idaho to become the nation’s dumping ground for its elemental mercury,” Gov. Butch Otter declared in his State of the State message just now, saying he’ll continue his fight against federal moves to bring mercury to Idaho. Then he compared it to congressional health care reform legislation. “There is a similar policy-making sleight-of-hand going on with the federal administration’s efforts to foist the cost of a budget-breaking entitlement program onto our backs,” he said. “Thank you for supporting me and our entire Idaho congressional delegation in fighting against this wholesale assault on our self determination.” His comments drew sustained applause.

Some items Otter would fund…

Gov. Butch Otter called for funding to “handle the tremendous enrollment growth” at the College of Western Idaho; “fully funding our commitments to cooperative medical education programs;” continuing to invest in the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls; and to provide $1 million in Opportunity Scholarships for Idaho students. He also called for $1 million to continue implementing the Comprehensive Aquifer Management Plan.

New $40M holdback would hit schools

On holdbacks, Gov. Butch Otter said, “As you know, the tiered holdback that I ordered in September gets us only part of the way to addressing the projected shortfall in our Fiscal Year 2010 revenue. I am asking you today to approve that holdback and to bring your collective wisdom and experience to bear on the remaining shortfall.” In his budget, he is proposing an additional $40 million, 1.6 percent holdback during the current budget year - one that would apply to public schools as well as all other agencies. That would mean a $27.9 million mid-year cut for schools. He also would tap $20 million from the state’s budget reserves to balance this year’s budget, making up for additional shortfalls as tax revenues have lagged.

On the new holdbacks, Otter said, “That is among the toughest recommendations I make today.” He said, “Legislative leadership and I are in agreement that public schools must participate in this new effort to respond to sharp revenue reductions by paring an additional 1.6 percent from our spending for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2010. Our proposal would look to local school districts for their specific ideas on how to best achieve the savings, including their discretionary use of local reserve accounts and - in extreme cases - advance future state funding.” He added, “This is not the course any of us would prefer to follow. It is unfortunate, but it is a temporary situation made necessary by our circumstances.”

Otter would cut 400 state jobs

“My budget eliminates more than 400 positions throughout state government - including about 375 that are now vacant, and consolidates some agency operations,” Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers. Twenty-five existing jobs at the state Department  of Parks & Recreation would be eliminated as the department is abolished and combined with the state Department of Lands; however, Otter’s budget allows for keeping the Parks Department in place if non-general funds can be identified to operate it. His budget also calls for a four-year phase-out of state general funds for Idaho Public Television and six smaller agencies, including the Human Rights Commission, the Hispanic Commission, and the Digital Learning Academy. The agencies wouldn’t be eliminated; instead, they’d operate with other funds.

Otter: ‘Sweeping changes’ that are ‘meant to be permanent’

The governor told lawmakers, “The budget recommendations I bring you today are based on the fact that it is not state government’s money. It is the people’s money. As a result, these recommendations are responsibly conservative. … They provide for a balanced budget, as our Idaho Constitution so wisely requires.” He added that his budget includes “some sweeping changes to the way we do business in state government - those changes are meant to be permanent, based on a philosophy of government that recognizes our responsibility to individual Idahoans rather than to government itself.”

Otter: Reports will call for tax incentives

The governor said he’ll “soon be submitting reports” from his business and innovation summits calling for eliminating the personal property tax; enacting tax credits for infrastructure construction investments; and creating a homebuyer tax credit like Utah’s. The reports will be submitted to the germane committees of the Legislature, Otter said.

Otter lists five priorities

Gov. Butch Otter listed five priorities, with the first being not to raise taxes. No. 2: Maintain some cash reserves. No. 3: Protect education. “As our recovery advances, one of our first priorities for new dollars should be our public schools and higher education,” he said. No. 4: Protect health and safety, “especially the neediest and most vulnerable among us.” No. 5: Avoid duplication and waste. “You will hear more about that in a few minutes,” he said.

Otter: ‘No. 1, we must not raise taxes’

“Number one, we must not raise taxes,” Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers. “It is not our place to impose an additional economic burden on the people of Idaho who already are struggling, or to put a damper on our economic recovery.” His comments drew a round of applause.

Otter: ‘We’re all in this together’

“We’re all in this together,” Otter told the assembled lawmakers, officials and onlookers. “We have the talent, the intelligence, the will and most of all the people to get through this - smarter, tougher, and better than ever, and we will.” He added, “It will require us all to look beyond the next election, and the next budget, to the next generation of Idahoans who will be reaping the harvest we sow, for good or ill.”

Otter arrives in the House chamber

Gov. Butch Otter warmly greeted lawmakers as he arrived in the chamber. Then he began by apologizing - because he said this will be his longest State of the State message. He joked that it might be longer than the session. The governor then introduced his 95-year-old mother, adding, “Mom, you don’t have to get up,” but she did.

Senators arrive in House chamber

Senators are filing in to the House chamber for the State of the State. There are greetings and camaraderie, but there’s also a solemn undertone - the governor is expected to announce sharp cuts in the state budget. Already, last week, he said he’ll impose an additional holdback on the current year’s budget in today’s speech - the speech will tell how much.

Incidentally, a note about the time stamps on this blog: While I’m blogging here in Boise in Mountain time, our servers are up in Spokane in the Pacific time zone. So the time stamp on each post shows an hour earlier than I’m actually posting.

Legislature convenes for 2010 session

The House has convened, and has made a formal presentation to an honor guard of the flag that will fly above the chamber, signifying that the Legislature is in session. In less than an hour, the full Senate, the justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and state elected officials will join the House in its chamber for the governor’s State of the State and budget address.

State responds to Pam Lowe’s lawsuit

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the state’s response to fired ITD Director Pam Lowe’s wrongful-termination lawsuit. The state filed its response over the weekend; it was filed by Newal Squyres of the Boise law firm Holland & Hart, who is the current president of the Idaho State Bar. He’s been designated by the state as a special deputy attorney general to handle Lowe’s lawsuit, which charges political pressure, sex discrimination and more in her dismissal; she was ITD’s first female director.

State: Law’s four grounds for ITD director dismissal are mere ‘examples’

The state of Idaho contends that the four grounds for dismissal of the state’s transportation director listed in state law are mere “examples,” and the state can fire its transportation director for any reason or no reason at all. “Although the statute provides examples of reasons for which the Director ‘may be removed by the board,’ including inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance, these terms are not a limitation on the board’s authority and do not alter the fact that Plaintiff served ‘at the pleasure of the board,’ ” the state argues in its response to a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed in federal court by former Idaho Transportation Department Director Pam Lowe.

The law, Idaho Code 40-503, states, “The director shall serve at the pleasure of the board and may be removed by the board for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.” Legal experts told The Spokesman-Review in August that Idaho’s law is contradictory, but suggests the four grounds are the only reasons a director may be fired.

Lowe has alleged she was fired, despite positive performance reviews, for resisting pressure to favor a politically well-connected contractor who was a big contributor to Gov. Butch Otter, and was discriminated against for her gender; she was the department’s first female director. Her suit notes that the board decided to pay her male replacement $22,000 a year more than it paid her. The board didn’t cite any of the four statutory reasons in dismissing Lowe, instead saying her firing would “help the department continue improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature.” Click below to read more.

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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