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Idaho Voices

In trooper count, Idaho lags behind its neighbors

BOISE – Idaho has far fewer state troopers on the road than either its neighbor states or a group of similarly sized states, according to a new analysis by the Idaho State Police.

Col. Jerry Russell, ISP chief, said when compared with the six surrounding states – Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Washington and Oregon – Idaho ranks dead last for number of troopers per citizen, with 11,288 citizens for every state trooper. Washington’s at 8,874 to one.

When compared with states of similar size – New Mexico, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Nebraska and Maine – Idaho again ranks dead last, by a huge margin.

“Findings from this analysis found that states with similar populations to Idaho have 1.5 to 4 times the amount of troopers on staff,” Russell told lawmakers last week. He added, “We need 88 more troopers – minimum 88 more troopers – to … get that 24-hour coverage out there on the state and interstate highways.”

UI warm to student firefighters

Last year, 11 University of Idaho students arrived late for school in the fall because it was still fire season, and they were off fighting wildfires. Now, the UI is letting student firefighters know that they won’t get burned if fire season again runs into the school year – classes start Aug. 24.

“We are supportive of their efforts and encourage the student firefighters, or a family member, to contact us so we know they do plan on returning,” said Nancy Krogh, UI registrar. The school will help those students coordinate registration, housing, financial aid and other needs. The firefighting students can either start late, or if they decide not to return for the semester, their tuition and fees are refunded. For more information, call (208) 885-6731.

Fees have already risen

Idaho’s state Parks Board is “adamant as far as opposing registration fees to replace fuel tax cutbacks,” according to acting Parks Director David Ricks, as parks face a loss of $4.5 million in trail funding next year that the agency has been getting from gas taxes. Here’s why they’re so adamant: Snowmobile, boat and ATV owners already have seen huge registration fee increases in the past four years. Here are the increases:

•In 2005, snowmobile registration fees went up 5 percent;

•In 2007, snowmobile registration fees went up a whopping 51 percent;

•In 2007, boat registration fees went up 48 percent;

•In 2009, registration fees for motorbikes and ATVs went up 20 percent.

That’s not counting the invasive species sticker requirement that was enacted this year, Ricks noted, which is on top of boat registration fees.

Budget pain in forecast

The state budget the Legislature set this year anticipated a $57.8 million balance at the end of fiscal year 2009 on July 1, largely due to increased federal matching money for Medicaid. But when July 1 rolled around, the actual ending balance for the fiscal year was only $13,400. “What actually occurred is that our revenue number did not hold through June,” said Cathy Holland-Smith, legislative budget director. Instead, state tax revenue for the year fell $95 million short.

Lawmakers had anticipated some revenue declines and planned for them in SB 1227, which transferred millions from the public school stabilization fund and the state budget stabilization fund to keep the state budget balanced.

In the same bill, lawmakers planned for more transfers as the new fiscal year began amid recession, initially setting the figure at $30 million from the budget stabilization fund to kick off fiscal year 2010. Instead, that transfer had to balloon up also, adding another $50 million from two different funds.

There’s still about $200 million in state reserves, between the budget stabilization fund, the public school stabilization fund, and the economic recovery reserve fund. All could be needed, however, to balance this year’s budget, depending on what happens.

Holland-Smith noted that with the falling revenue in 2009, the budget that lawmakers set for 2010 now shows a 3.4 percent revenue increase from ’09 to ’10, rather than being flat or showing a decline. “It just doesn’t seem to be realistic,” she said. Even though the recession seems to be lessening, state revenues are budgeted a year out, Holland-Smith said. “We don’t recover as quickly in our revenue.”

To add to the possible budget pain ahead, Gov. Butch Otter already has said the state Department of Health & Welfare has a $20 million budget shortfall in Medicaid due to rising caseloads, and likely will seek a supplemental appropriation from next year’s Legislature to cover this year’s costs. Corrections costs, budgeted based on no growth in prison populations, also could grow and require supplemental appropriations, though that hasn’t happened yet. Said Holland-Smith: “There are some significant challenges right now.”

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