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New ‘Opportunity Fund’ at Commerce means more accountability, but not budget boost

More information emerged this morning in JFAC about the governor’s one-time request for $3 million for a new “Idaho Opportunity Fund” to help secure new jobs, both at existing and new businesses, through funding local community infrastructure projects, like sewer lines and broadband extensions. The new fund would replace the “director’s fund,” or the “business and jobs development fund,” to which several million dollars have been appropriated over the years, starting with an initial $3 million in 2007, and including a $400,000 ongoing appropriation approved last year. But the director’s fund was used “literally at the director’s discretion,” Commerce Director Jeff Sayer told legislative budget writers. “We’re asking for a formal fund that has sideboards, that has increased transparency.” Along with that, HB 100 is being proposed to formalize the rules for the fund; it cleared the House Business Committee yesterday on a unanimous vote.

It includes requiring a community match to all grants, in some form, from cash contributions to a small town contributing a front-end loader and operator to dig a ditch for a sewer line; requiring negotiated agreements, where the department, the community and the business all are at the table; and using performance measures. “That simply says we’re not going to write out a check until they meet those obligations,” Sayer said, such as creating certain numbers of jobs and the like. “That’s significantly different from what we’re doing now. Right now we’re the first money in, in a lot of cases. What we’re asking is a chance to be the last money in when they deliver.” In economic development circles, Sayer said, it’ll be what’s known as a “deal-closing fund.”

Reports would be required quarterly and annually on grants made from the fund.

“This $3 million … would be not only carefully used to extend our economy, but it’d be carefully used to make sure that we’re bringing a return to the state,” Sayer said. The request comes as grant funding through the Department of Commerce has just started to rebound after deep cuts during the recession; it’s currently well below 2009 levels.

The governor’s budget recommends the $3 million transfer from the general fund come from the department’s existing budget, so there’s no corresponding increase in the department’s general fund budget, which is proposed to grow next year by just 0.6 percent.


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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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