January 3, 2009 in Idaho

Public will notice Otter’s budget cuts

Proposal to recommend reductions for each agency
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Under the budget Gov. Butch Otter is crafting to present to state lawmakers, Idahoans next year would face longer waits for state services, some state field offices would be open just four days a week, and about 100 state workers would face layoffs.

With the economic downturn pinching state tax revenue, Otter is working on plans to cut state government well beyond the 4 percent budget holdbacks he implemented last fall. Those fall cuts would become permanent, along with an additional $120 million in cuts.

But unlike the fall holdbacks, Otter’s plan for cutting the state budget in the coming year doesn’t rely on across-the-board cuts. Instead, each state agency would see an additional cut ranging from zero to 6 percent.

“It’s almost impossible to do that and not have tangible consequences, not have some real effect,” said Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget director.

Otter will unveil the details Jan. 12, when he presents his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature. It’ll then be up to lawmakers to set the final budget for next year, but with hard decisions on cuts looming, they’re looking to Otter for guidance.

“Obviously his recommendations carry a lot of weight,” said state Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “We’re looking for an opportunity to cooperate, perhaps even more closely than ever before – because the situation demands that.”

Otter has taken some criticism for insisting on across-the-board cuts last fall, requiring the same percentage from every agency, though he left it up to agency directors to decide which specific items to cut.

He’s taking a different approach this time. First he asked every agency to develop a plan for additional 6 percent cuts, on top of the 4 percent from the fall. That would total slightly less than 10 percent, because the base is reduced by the first cut before the 6 percent cut is applied.

Then Otter’s budget staff studied the proposals and made recommendations.

“Some agencies, you get to the end of the report and you’re like, ‘That’s harsh, it’s going to be difficult,’ ” Hammon said. “Others, you couldn’t get through them without saying, ‘Stop!’ ”

An example, he said: Health and Welfare.

“We’ve already cut them so much – it becomes very, very difficult to get much more out of that agency without very serious consequences.”

The earlier budget cuts already are forcing controversial cutbacks in treatment hours for disabled patients, sparking an outcry from the patients’ families and providers.

Otter’s Division of Financial Management made recommendations, based on each department’s proposal and its analysis, for additional budget cuts of zero to 6 percent. Those went to the governor, who studied them line by line.

“There were several agencies he moved down – said, ‘No, we’re cutting them too far,’ ” Hammon said. “Several he moved up, said, ‘No, we could cut a little more.’ ”

That process led to the $120 million figure. That’s actually less than the $130.6 million Otter cut from the budget this fall, but that figure included both the 4 percent holdbacks, totaling $108.8 million, and $21.8 million in one-time funds that Otter trimmed from the budget at the same time.

No executive branch agencies came out at zero in the process, Hammon said, with the lowest executive branch cut at 0.74 percent. “There are branches of government at zero, but none of them are in the executive branch.”

Cameron spoke approvingly of Otter’s targeted approach. “The larger the reductions, you just about have to be more targeted, because there’s some agencies that cannot withstand the size of reductions that we’re needing to talk about,” he said.

“It’s going to be very difficult. It’s going to require a lot of strength and courage, because some of these programs are very important to somebody, or they wouldn’t exist. But at the same time, it’s apparent that we cannot afford to operate all of the programs that we’re currently operating.”

Hammon said the layoffs would be scattered throughout state government. Some are immediate – he laid off one employee in his division this week – while others would wait until after the Legislature acts.

State programs that offer grants also are likely to be trimmed, he said. Some entire programs will be eliminated. Many vacant positions won’t be filled. “They are real cuts,” Hammon said. “People with a need are going to see longer wait periods.”

Cameron noted that the public’s opportunity to weigh in on the cuts comes at the legislative level, where they can contact their lawmakers and have their say. “It’s still a political process,” he said. “The governor will lead, and we’ll work together with him, but the legislative branch is the public’s opportunity to express whether those reductions are in the right place or they should be someplace else.”

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com. For more news from Boise go to www.spokesman.com/boise.


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