Gov. Phil Batt unveils the centerpiece of the 1997 session today, and lawmakers expect no substantive change from the conservative spending blueprints that marked the governor’s first two years in office.
But by his own admission, Batt believes those past budgets have already squeezed any remaining fat from state government. Just a month ago, he called Idaho one of the most efficient of the states.
It leaves little operating room in putting together the general tax budget for the year that begins July 1. Batt has talked about agency consolidation as a money saver, citing the successful merger of the Employment Department with Labor and Industrial Services last year and an informal consolidation of many operations of the Finance and Insurance departments.
And he has promised to continue looking for the handful of places where cash can be saved through increased efficiency or operational changes.
But offsetting those efforts are rising demands on the state treasury. Up to $10 million will be needed in the new budget to open the 500-bed prison expansion, and legislative budget-writers got a glimpse on Tuesday of just how far that expansion will go.
Batt is recommending emergency spending this budget year of another $3.7 million to cope with inmate overcrowding, pushing total spending for housing the inmate overflow in county jails or out of state to $7.7 million.
The state has been earmarking $4 million a year for inmate housing outside the prison system, but that has always been short. Batt’s 1998 budget boosts the amount to $5.7 million, which he said should be enough if the prison expansion is completed as expected.
That kind of spending pressure against the backdrop of revenue growth in the 5-percent rather than 9-percent or 10-percent range of the early 1990s make prospects for the 1997-1998 budget dim.
Although the state Board of Education had requested only a 5 percent increase in state aid for public schools, Senate Finance Chairman Atwell Parry called the $34.4 million increase “out of the question.”
A year ago, Batt slashed the board’s request by $21 million, and Parry suspects the governor may try to compensate for that to some extent.
“My gut feeling is that he’s going to do what he can for education because education was so lean last year,” he said.
Aid to public and higher education accounts for 61 percent of general tax spending and shrinking while juvenile and adult corrections and health and welfare programs take up another 21 percent and growing.
A decade ago, public and higher education aid claimed 68 percent of general tax spending while corrections and health and welfare demanded less than 15 percent.
Batt said there may be some easing on the prison front, and he believes the only real way to reverse the spending trend is a return of responsible social behavior.
And while the governor calls education one of the state’s most critical responsibilities, he has left little indication that he has a plan to resolve the need for new school buildings statewide.