Gov. Phil Batt proposed millions more in education spending Wednesday, but prison spending is growing even faster.
Under Batt’s proposed budget for the coming year, spending on corrections would rise to 7.3 percent of the state budget. That’s nearly double the 1990 level of 3.8 percent.
Public schools, which took 51 percent of the state’s general fund in 1990, would drop to 47.5 percent.
Batt said that doesn’t matter. He told lawmakers, “My job - and yours - is to look less at percentages and more at priorities, regardless of what the final pie chart looks like.”
Of the $122.1 million in new spending in Batt’s proposed $1.56 billion budget, 46 percent would go to education, which long has made up over this year the largest part of Idaho’s budget. About half as much would go to public safety, including adult and juvenile corrections.
“The reality is that adult and juvenile correctional programs are being swamped by an influx of criminals who are committed by the courts and who must be housed and cared for,” Batt said in his budget address to a joint session of the Legislature.
Sen. Clyde Boatright, R-Rathdrum, said he expects the trend toward increased prison spending to hold until the Legislature “can take a look at alternate means of incarceration.
“Frankly, I’d like to not have so much incarceration,” he said. “I’d like to have local programs where we can change people’s minds about violating the rules of our society.”
Boatright is vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee, which will deal with prison reform issues this year.
Batt’s budget proposal includes funding for 78 private, contracted beds to allow inmates from North Idaho to continue working in their communities while serving their time. The state operates several community work centers for inmates nearing release, but they’re all in southern Idaho.
The governor’s budget proposal also calls for:
Giving raises to state employees. With more than $20 million earmarked, Batt targeted enough money to increase salaries 5 percent. But he recommended only a small increase in base pay for the lowest-paid employees, with the rest of the money to be divided based on merit.
Rep. Larry Watson, D-Wallace, said that bothers him. “I think if the money is there, we should make sure everyone gets a raise,” he said.
Boatright said he favors 6 percent raises for state employees, and Rep. Jim Stoicheff, D-Sandpoint, said regular workers should receive pay raises but elected officials should not.
Legislators provided no money for raises last year - not even the modest 2 percent Batt had recommended. He said he won’t stand for that this year.
“I hope you will not look upon this $20 million as a place to raid for other projects, as I am unwilling to accept severe reductions,” he said.
Putting $8.5 million more into the state’s Budget Reserve Fund, bringing it up to $36 million, or 2.5 percent of the state budget. Batt said that’s a reasonable level.
Rep. Jeff Alltus, R-Coeur d’Alene, said Batt’s move is “just smart business.”
Said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, “It makes sense to me that when times are good, you squirrel away money for when times are bad. It’s fiscally responsible.”
Batt estimates that tax receipts will grow by 5 percent in the coming year. The state also expects to have money left over from the current year’s budget.
Enacting no general tax increases. But Batt did express support for “moderate” increases in Fish and Game Department license fees and for hikes in beer and wine taxes.
However, Batt made no mention of Coeur d’Alene Republican Sen. Jack Riggs’ plan to raise gasoline taxes by a penny a gallon and hike car registration fees to fund improvements of U.S. Highway 95.
“I advocated a gas tax increase two years ago,” Batt said after his speech. “I indicated at that time I would not propose another, and I’m not. If they pass something, I’ll look at it when it’s on my desk.”
Rep. Hilde Kellogg, R-Post Falls, said she would oppose beer and wine tax increases unless they are tied to a specific, worthy cause. “Unless it’s income to build Highway 95, that’s the only one I’d look at.”
Although Batt earlier had suggested he’d propose state funding for Head Start, he said Wednesday he has heard from advocates of many different approaches and is “not prepared to recommend one approach over another.” He asked lawmakers to look at the issue.
Boatright said he is disappointed. “We have some terrific Head Start programs in Idaho,” he said.
Idaho is one of just nine states that put no state funds into the federal program for disadvantaged pre-schoolers. As a result, only about a fifth of eligible youngsters are in Head Start, and programs statewide have long waiting lists.
Boatright said he has contacted Head Start officials about starting a program in his hometown, Rathdrum, and supports expanding Head Start with state funds.
Overall, Batt’s budget is somewhat more expansive than those of recent years, which have seen tight state finances and midyear budget cuts. The budget proposal is up 7.7 percent over the current year, and Batt recommends a 2.7 percent inflation factor for state agency operations - an item the Legislature has funded at zero in four of the past five years.
Sen. Atwell Parry, R-Parma, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, said many of Batt’s proposals will be welcome, but the committee may find the bottom line too high.
“Some members of that committee, if you said 5 percent (increase), they’d say it’s too high.”
Batt also challenged legislators to consolidate school districts and cut strings that require Medicaid to pay for specific services pressed for by special interest groups. Both moves would be politically risky but would save taxpayers money, he said.
“This budget, if enacted, will allow adequate funding for Idaho’s governmental needs while refraining from wasting taxpayers’ money,” Batt told lawmakers. “If you have better proposals, I stand ready to accept them.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Gov. Batt’s proposed budget
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Budget highlights Here are some of the items Gov. Batt included in his proposed budget for the coming year: $20.5 million for state employee raises, about 5 percent. But the raises will be given out mostly on merit. $8.5 million to go into the Budget Reserve Fund to bring the fund up to 2.5 percent of the state budget. No new tax increases or cuts, although the governor said he’d back moderate increases proposed in Fish and Game license fees and beer and wine taxes. School districts would get a large chunk of their increased funding this year, $29 million, with no strings attached. They would decide how to spend it. A $465,000 initiative to get online access to periodicals and other literature for every library in the state. The Idaho State Library would coordinate the program. No new Health and Welfare programs, just funding to continue existing programs. Contracts for 76 pre-release private prison beds in North Idaho, so the state can place suitable inmates from North Idaho in community work programs. Existing community work centers are only in southern Idaho. Step up tax enforcement, with the hope that a $3.4 million investment will bring in $12.5 million per year in currently unpaid taxes. A new North Idaho parks and recreation employee to promote boating safety.