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Legislators Stash Cash For Programs Budget Writers Searching For Ways To Fund Items Not In Batt Proposal

Legislative budget writers on Wednesday began squirreling away cash to finance programs that Gov. Phil Batt refused to include in his cut-to-the-bone 1996 spending plan.

Paying for Batt’s promised $40 million property tax reduction left the Joint FinanceAppropriations Committee with only about $5 million in cash above Batt’s $1.35 billion budget proposal.

Even some conservative lawmakers were concerned about the crunch.

“That is not a lot of wiggle room,” Legislative Budget Director Jeff Youtz told the committee, and conservative Senate Finance Chairman Atwell Parry acknowledged it was not enough.

“With the interest that has been shown in the other programs that have come down the line, we need much, much more than that,” the Melba Republican said.

To free up cash to pay for those extras, the House-Senate committee voted unanimously to include no additional money to agencies for inflationary expenses except in specific, justified situations. It also put off implementing an administration proposal to make financing intragovernment transactions more efficient.

By allowing none of the 2.4 percent increase for inflation Batt proposed, the committee would free up $2.4 million in general tax revenue. And postponing for at least a year the change in financing transactions would add another $500,000 to the pot.

“There’s a couple of million dollars that can be used for education, for priority needs in this state,” House Appropriations Vice Chairman Robert Geddes, R-Preston, said.

But with postage up, utility costs about to rise and office rents increasing, inflationary increases can probably be justified by any number of agencies, particularly the smaller ones with little leeway in other budget areas to absorb price hikes. If denied, cutbacks would have to be made in existing programs.

Batt’s budget makes good on his pledge for a leaner government, but for many lawmakers the governor’s plan is too lean in areas critical to them.

The growing list of potential additions - only a handful contemplated by Batt - includes $2 million for expanded engineering education in Boise, $2 million to start up the Department of Juvenile Corrections, $1.6 million for Snake River recharge and $1 million for food inspection. The list is even longer if lawmakers choose to ignore several cuts or eliminations Batt proposed on programs like respite care and the Council for the Deaf.

The biggest concern, however, is the state aid package for public schools. Batt has proposed $664 million, up $43.5 million from this year’s total but only enough to meet legally mandated expenses and the 5 percent pay raise Batt has recommended for all state employees.

There would be little cash for school districts to spend as they see fit for school reform or improvements.

The traditional hot-button issue in the annual state budget, the state aid package needs to be pushed to $670 million in the view of some budget writers, and the only place to find that kind of cash is in the building budget.

Youtz made it clear that any significant changes in the Batt plan would have to be covered with money from the $49.3 million the governor has earmarked for prison and university building construction.

Because of the money crunch, raiding that cash pool has become more attractive to lawmakers, even though they have been warned that shorting specific projects now will only create more serious problems next year and the year after.

That’s because the state economy is stabilizing and revenue growth is slacking, while demands for government spending continue to mount.