January 14, 2009 in Idaho

Politicians spar over laptops

Idaho’s Otter vetoed legislators’ request
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

Web technology

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

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.”

Wayne Hammon, the governor’s budget chief, delivered the veto threat as he was detailing the governor’s budget proposal to the joint budget committee Tuesday. Otter opposes a $142,300 appropriation requested by the Legislative Council to “restore funding for legislative computer and communication equipment,” an item he 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, calling the move “budget sleight-of-hand.” 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 laptops, the line-item veto covered money for staff to maintain the legislative computer system and software. Lawmakers used another fund to get the laptops.

Rather than override Otter’s veto, “we chose to let it lie, because we could handle it with existing resources,” Cameron said. Lawmakers can override a governor’s veto by a two-thirds vote in each house. In hindsight, “we probably should have,” Cameron said.

Cameron said last year’s computer veto was in retaliation for a legislative trim in a budget item requested by the governor’s division of financial management.

He told Hammon, “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.” Lawmakers have been using the laptops in the session that started this week.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said his old laptop was shot.

“It isn’t like that was a luxury – that’s a necessity. … I would say at least 70 percent of my constituent communications are via e-mail – I certainly don’t want to lose that opportunity,” Hammond said.

Before lawmakers got laptops, a group of young staffers and pages maintained large binders of every bill introduced in the Legislature and kept them available for reference during legislative debates. Now the information is on the Internet.

Otter faces a big challenge this year persuading the Legislature to go along with his plan for a transportation tax increase along with steep cuts in state spending, including cuts in schools. Hammond said that given the situation, he was surprised the governor would take lawmakers on over computers.

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.”

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com.


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