January 13, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho governor, lawmakers clash over computers

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - With controversial budget cuts on the line, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter became embroiled Tuesday in a fight with lawmakers over his line-item veto last year of their new laptop computers.

Lawmakers got new laptops anyway - and now the governor’s threatening another veto.

“It’s silly and it’s petty, and it’s the wrong way to start a budget session,” declared Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “There are a hundred, maybe even a thousand issues that we’re going to have to handle, and to pick a scab off a wound from last year is foolishness, in my opinion.”

The generally friendly Wayne Hammon, the governor’s budget chief, delivered the threat from the governor to lawmakers as he was detailing the governor’s budget proposal to the joint budget committee Tuesday morning: Otter opposes a $142,300 appropriation requested by the Legislative Council to “restore funding for legislative computer and communication equipment,” an item he line-item vetoed last year. “Particularly offensive to the governor is the manner in which this item was sneaked into the budget,” as an adjustment rather than as a line item, Hammon said, dubbing the move “budget sleight-of-hand.” He said the governor’s veto threat was back on the table.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee co-chairwoman, responded, “We’ve been called a lot of things but we’ve never been called sneaks before.”

In addition to the actual laptop computers that lawmakers use, the line-item veto covered funds for staff to maintain the legislative computer system and software.

“We chose to let it lie, because we could handle it with existing resources,” Cameron said, “rather than override” the veto. Lawmakers can override a governor’s veto by a two-thirds vote in each house. “Sure we could have, if leadership had wanted to,” Cameron said. “We could have, and in hindsight, we probably should have.”

Cameron said the computer veto was in retaliation for a legislative trim in a budget item requested by the governor’s Division of Financial Management. “The governor didn’t like it, because there’s a long history,” Cameron said, that the two branches leave each other’s budgets for such items alone. “As retribution, he vetoed the computers,” Cameron said.

Cameron told Hammon, “Frankly it’s no different than any other agency who finds money within their agency,” to fund an unfunded item. “Our lease on the computers had expired. Those computers act as our ability to communicate with the public and act as our bill books, which saves us money. The veto occurred as retaliation for this committee’s unwillingness to approve a request from your office. … It wasn’t because the computers weren’t needed.” He added, “Those comments are in my opinion unwarranted.”

Lawmakers all have their new laptops, and have been using them in the legislative session that started this week.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said his old laptop was “shot.” “It was obvious we needed to replace them,” he said. “It isn’t like that was a luxury - that’s a necessity. Instead of our law books, that’s what we use. For a lot of us, that’s our budget book. I would say at least 70 percent of my constituent communications are via e-mail - I certainly don’t want to lose that opportunity.”

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who like Hammond serves on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and heard Hammon’s presentation Tuesday morning, said, “Our House members use their computers to vote on in this building - they’re a necessity. … I use it on the floor to read the bills. I do feel they’re a necessity in this day and age.”

Before lawmakers got laptop computers, a bevy of young staffers and pages had to maintain binders of every bill introduced in the Legislature, and keep them available for reference during legislative debates. Now, all that information is on the Internet.

Otter used his line-item veto three times last year, two of them against substance-abuse funding on which he and lawmakers later compromised, after the Senate voted to override one of those vetoes. There was no veto override attempted on the computer funding.

This year, Otter faces a big challenge convincing the Legislature to go along with his plan for a transportation tax increase along with steep cuts in state spending, including cuts in public schools. Hammond said given that, he was surprised the governor would take lawmakers on over computers. “I couldn’t believe that shot - it was just amazing,” he said.

Jon Hanian, spokesman for Otter, said, “Our take is there’s gonna be these moments - hopefully fewer of these than last year, because we’ve got less money to squabble about.”


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