By Kimberlee Kruesi, Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Republican gubernatorial candidate Tommy Ahlquist said this week his campaign promise to cut $100 million in 100 days if elected may not result in a reduction to the state budget.
"I am not saying cutting the budget," said Ahlquist during an interview with KLIX on Wednesday. "What I'm saying is let's go find $100 million in spending that we can put toward something else."
Ahlquist first announced his plans to trim $100 million of the state budget last year. He has since released multiple statewide television advertisements promising to eliminate $100 million in wasteful spending.
During Wednesday's interview, Ahlquist said he wants to identify the money within Idaho's $3.5 billion budget and possibly reallocate that amount elsewhere in state government.
Campaign manager David Johnston said Friday that Ahlquist's comments were consistent with prior statements. Johnston says the candidate's goal has always been to cut $100 million of government waste and use it to fund different projects or give it back to the taxpayer.
Ahlquist is running for political office for the first time against Republicans Lt. Gov. Brad Little and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador in the upcoming May primary election.
"Tommy Ahlquist has spent over one million dollars misleading Idahoans that he wanted to cut spending. He has shown again and again that he will say anything to get elected," said Labrador's campaign manager China Veldhouse Gum, in a prepared statement — adding that Labrador has promised to cut spending and take on establishment candidates.
Little did not respond to a telephone request for comment.
Ahlquist's comments on reallocating money cut from the state budget caught the attention of a political analyst who has been following his campaign since the Boise businessman entered the race and politics in February and then made the promise in June.
"I follow along with the news and saw the ads, I never remember getting that the intent was about reallocating the money. It sounded like a cut," said Jaclyn Kettler, a Boise State University political scientist. "To me, this isn't a complete flip flop. It's adding more nuance to something that maybe should have been there in the beginning."
Ahlquist's promise to cut $100 million of the budget immediately raised eyebrows from state budget writers and government watchdog groups wary that the promise might result in reductions to education or health care services. Republican leaders in charge of drafting the state budget have also countered the budget is already lean, with sections still awaiting backfill from the Great Recession.
Meanwhile, Ahlquist's campaign has not disclosed what could get cut, but Ahlquist told radio host Bill Colley during Wednesday's interview his team is analyzing all of the state's agencies.
Separately, one of Ahlquist's campaign advertisements said $60 million could be saved by changing the state's employee health insurance system. That number — based on a 2016 legislative report — has since been dismissed by experts studying the issue after receiving a new analysis over the summer.
"I just see so many ways to innovate and to make our government more streamlined and bring that excellence into it that we're going to save and use it for things that matter," Ahlquist said. "That's very different than saying we're going to slash government money. I just don't understand that. I think that's silly."
Labrador has proposed drastically reducing state taxes on sales, income and corporations in a package that experts estimate would reduce state revenue by more than $1 billion.
Labrador has not said what state services, such as education or law enforcement, would face reductions if elected and his tax plan is enacted.
Three-term Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican, is not seeking re-election.
Also running for governor in heavily Republican Idaho are Democrats A.J. Balukoff, a Boise businessman, and state Rep. Paulette Jordan of Plummer.