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WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5, 2014, 8:59 A.M.

Corrections budget set, prison system to see 11% funding hike

The Idaho Legislature's joint budget committee debates agency budgets on Wednesday morning (Betsy Russell)
The Idaho Legislature's joint budget committee debates agency budgets on Wednesday morning (Betsy Russell)

Idaho’s state Department of Correction would see an 11 percent increase in state funds next year, under a budget set by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in a series of motions today, slightly higher than the governor’s proposed 9.2 percent, but the difference is largely because it includes the same state employee pay boosts that lawmakers are writing into every state agency budget – 2 percent in total funds, with half of that for permanent raises, and half for one-time bonuses. Otter had recommended zero funding for raises. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, argued unsuccessfully for an alternative plan to make the full 2 percent permanent for prison workers, but was outvoted, 6-13; she’d earlier made the same proposal, with similar results, for the state Department of Juvenile Corrections.

Nuxoll and backers of her proposal said Corrections sees high turnover because of its low pay, which means steep training costs; other JFAC members said the same approach is being taken for all agencies next year, and it wouldn’t be fair to waive it just for one agency or another. They also suggested that if revenues are sufficient, lawmakers next year could look at making the one-time part of the raises permanent.

There was some drama on the budget for the Commission for Pardons and Parole, which is a piece of the corrections budget. The committee approved a budget on a 17-2 vote that largely matches the governor’s recommendation, declining to fund any of the upgrades the commission has requested – including funding to address a backlog in hearing minutes that stretches back four years. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, offered a stark alternative motion: Zero-fund the commission entirely. “This is meant in no way to disrespect commissioners,” Schmidt said. “But at the time of our budget hearing, what I heard deeply troubled me.” He said he’d done lots of research, and the commission appears to be “in violation of statute and rule, which in my opinion puts us in a very difficult position.”

Schmidt said under the Idaho Constitution, the Board of Correction has authority over parole. "Are we going to continue to give them money to violate the law?" he asked. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, seconded Schmidt’s motion, but it never came up for a vote, because the other proposal, from Rep. Darrell Bolz and Nuxoll, was proposed as a substitute motion and passed. Only Schmidt and Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, voted against the Bolz-Nuxoll motion.

At that point, work on the corrections budget was complete; it totals $200.7 million in state general funds, a $19.89 million increase from this year. JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said the situation reminded her of Thanksgiving dinner. “You just work hours and hours and days and days, and then in 35 minutes it’s done,” she said. “All those efforts. I do thank all of you who have taken so much time on those budgets this year. I know there were hours that went into the Monday budgets, and hours that went into these.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “When you leave Thanksgiving dinner, you’re always full and satisfied. You can’t always say the same here.”

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Russell covers Idaho news from the state capitol in Boise and writes the Eye on Boise blog.

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