Senate budget writers dipped into the state’s dwindling cash balance on Wednesday, unanimously endorsing the Republican legislative leadership’s $1 million Constitutional Defense Council.
The Finance Committee also endorsed legislation creating a trust to finance an estimated $277 million backlog in recreational facility repairs and renovations, but Chairman Atwell Parry said the fund would have to remain empty because there is no money left.
Parry said it could be some time before the state can put any cash into the fund. But he and other supporters pointed out that at least a framework would be in place to handle any contributions from private enterprise should they be offered.
State Parks and Recreation Director Yvonne Ferrell said Idaho Power Co. had indicated some interest in contributing as part of an off-site mitigation plan for relicensing its Snake River power plants.
The Senate committee also agreed to authorize another $38,000 in general tax revenue to the University of Idaho Agricultural Research and Extension Service for work on the beet disease rhizomania, or crazy root.
All three proposals still need the approval of the full Senate before being forwarded to the House.
The Constitutional Defense Council - made up of the governor, attorney general, House speaker and Senate president pro tem - has been a priority of legislative leaders for nine months and has been endorsed by Republican Gov. Phil Batt.
The fund would be used to protect states’ rights from federal attacks, and Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Twiggs, R-Blackfoot, said it was still needed even though Idaho Republican Sen. Dirk Kempthorne won enactment of his ban on unfunded federal mandates.
Twiggs said the financial wherewithal of the council to legally challenge the federal government is what Kempthorne believes is needed to make Congress abide by the legal restrictions of his unfunded mandates law.
“This is a concept the people of the state of Idaho embrace,” Twiggs said. “They’re very much concerned about federal mandates.”
He speculated the state would probably be supported by others in any challenge to federal action, predicting the council would be scrupulous in selecting issues to take on.
Critics claim the fund will become nothing more than a way to pay off attorneys who support Republican candidates, a charge Twiggs and other dismiss.
Batt called the controversy over additional waste storage at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory a classic example of where the fund would come into play.
Cash to finance the council was
drummed up a day earlier when House-Senate budget writers voted 10-9 to slash $1 million from the state building maintenance budget, reducing it below the minimum experts recommend spending annually on building maintenance.