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Bell: ‘When the wheels fall off, I feel somebody’s responsible, and it’s us’

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee debates state agency budgets on Thursday morning. (Betsy Russell)
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee debates state agency budgets on Thursday morning. (Betsy Russell)

Gov. Butch Otter's budget recommendation for next year calls for zero funding for capital replacement items, but lawmakers are concerned that some equipment replacement needs are too critical to continue to overlook. "I worry about this infrastructure," said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. "I feel responsible for letting everything fall apart."

Examples: Roofs and HVAC systems need replacing at state ag research stations where researchers are working on seeds.  Idaho Public TV workers must climb a 350-foot tower on an 8,000-foot mountaintop every year to replace a special lightbulb, because the agency can't afford to switch to a longer-lasting fluorescent bulb that would last 10 years because of the replacement cost. The Idaho State School for the Deaf and Blind needs a school bus with a wheelchair lift that'll cost $65,000. None of those were included in the governor's proposed budget.

Bell and other JFAC members, led by both the joint committees co-chairs and vice-chairs, have been  working on a plan to address a limited number of capital replacement items in next year's budget, though far less than agencies say are needed. Bell said the target is no more than $5 million statewide, in all agencies. As a result, budgets set by the joint committee this morning for  Agricultural Research and Extension, Idaho Public Television and Professional-Technical Education all included small amounts to replace the most critical items - including the tower light bulbs for IPTV.

"We have really kept them so short on maintenance and equipment," Bell said. "When the wheels fall off, I feel somebody's responsible, and it's us." Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, "I think we're at the duct tape and baling wire stage on many of those replacement items. I think we need to put that right up at the top of our priorities."

IPTV's critical replacement item list totaled $1.5 million; JFAC approved $189,600. Ag Research and Extension identified more than $1 million in needs; it got $325,000. In the Professional-Technical Education budget, the state's six technical colleges will get $65,000 each to replace instructional equipment. All three votes were unanimous, 20-0. The request for the school bus for the School for the Deaf and Blind won't come up until the public school budget is considered on March 5; numerous other agencies also have pending requests for equipment replacement.

Ringo said, "I think Public TV has gone the extra mile and then some to try to keep things working and make these budgets work." Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, said the replacement items funded there "fall under the categories of aging or dead equipment, employee and public safety, and risk of losing their broadcast signals." Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said he checked the mileage on a non-working vehicle that's finally being replaced, "and it was in excess of 190,000." JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said to laughter, "That's just getting a new life in Rupert."

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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