BOISE – Idaho’s state budget challenges grew tougher Thursday, as lawmakers concluded the governor’s estimate for how much tax revenue will fall next year didn’t go far enough.
If the new estimate stands, lawmakers would have to slice $101 million beyond the steep budget cuts Gov. Butch Otter already is recommending or find the money elsewhere by dipping deep into rainy-day funds or raising taxes.
Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the special economic outlook and revenue assessment committee, noted that the panel heard two days of dismal economic news last week from Idaho industries, agencies and economists. “Based on the testimony that the committee received … we felt that the governor’s projections are over-optimistic,” Goedde said.
The committee’s decision, which will go before the Legislature’s joint budget committee this morning, came as hundreds of people with disabilities, their family members and advocates from around the state converged on the Capitol annex to protest budget cuts in services.
Protesters toted signs saying, “No Medicaid Cuts,” “Our Community Includes ME,” and “Do you enjoy living in your own home? So does my son!” The crowd rallied outside the annex, then streamed inside to collar their local legislators.
Goedde said a North Idaho mother of two autistic children, with whom he’s exchanged letters, came to see him. “I had a discussion with her,” he said. “There’s nothing easy about budget cuts.”
Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, voted for the lower revenue prediction, which passed with only one “no” vote, from Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise.
“I unfortunately think it’s the safest course to take,” Henderson said. “It’ll make us work much harder on the budget. It’ll make us make cuts we need to do.”
Henderson said he, too, heard from constituents concerned about cuts in Medicaid. “Of course they’re concerned, and we’re very conscious of that,” he said. “That’s why it makes this so difficult. But sometimes we have to put limits on very critical programs.”
He noted that cuts also are looming for senior programs such as Meals on Wheels and respite care, “critical things that help seniors stay in their homes. It’s not easy to do those, but when you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.”
The protesters were especially concerned about the 4 percent midyear budget cut, or holdback, Otter already has imposed, and resulting reductions in treatment hours for disabled children and adults. On Thursday morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to make those cuts permanent.
Said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “I guess we can only hope and pray that it doesn’t get worse before it gets better.”
No one voted “no” on the cuts. Two lawmakers, Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, later spoke at the rally.
“I’m going to do all I can to try to minimize the impact,” McGeachin said. Advocates at the rally said they hope that when the House and Senate Health and Welfare committees review rules for implementing the 4 percent cuts, they’ll soften the effect by making them temporary and allowing for exceptions.
Katherine Hansen, of the Idaho Association of Developmental Disability Agencies, said that in some cases, cuts in treatment hours may end up costing the state more, because of their harm to patients. One woman held a toddler bundled in pink, along with a sign saying, “I am the face of the governor’s holdbacks.”
The special revenue committee accepted the governor’s revenue estimate for the current year, fiscal year 2009, of $2.6338 billion – down 9.5 percent from the previous year. But instead of accepting his estimate for fiscal 2010 of $2.6593 billion, the committee went with $2.5579 billion. That’s $101.4 million less.
The budget Otter is proposing for fiscal year 2010, which starts July 1, already is 7.3 percent below the original budget lawmakers set for this year. With another $101.4 million taken out of it, that 7.3 percent cut would grow to 10.8 percent.