January 24, 2009 in Idaho Voices

State sees some budget savings

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – From the silver-linings department, the economic downturn has actually meant savings in a few remote corners of Idaho’s state budget.

Among them: Since the 4 percent holdbacks, or mid-year budget cuts, were imposed, the state treasurer expects to save $51,300 on bank fees for deposits and other transactions, because less state revenue this year meant fewer transactions.

The Health and Welfare Department reports it can cut child-care subsidy payments because more parents are out of work and thus don’t need child care.

And in another somewhat surprising bright spot: More parents are paying their back child support in these difficult economic times. There’s a not-so-pleasant reason, however: They’ve lost their jobs and gone on unemployment. “We can garnish unemployment and that will pay for the arrears,” Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told lawmakers.

New senator has familiar last name

Gov. Butch Otter has appointed Melinda Smyser - who is married to prominent Statehouse lobbyist Skip Smyser – to Brad Little’s former Senate seat. Otter chose Smyser, a GOP activist who was the top choice of a district party committee that submitted three names to the governor, over Caldwell farmer Sid Freeman and Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett, to fill the District 11 seat.

“Melinda is active, engaged and knowledgeable. She knows the issues, the people and the process. She will make a great state senator,” Otter said. “It’s been well known for a long time that if someone wants to get something done in Canyon County politics, Melinda should be involved. That kind of approach will carry her a long way in the Idaho Senate.”

Melinda Smyser, a former school district trustee who holds a master’s degree in education from the College of Idaho, was named Canyon County Republican of the Year in 2008.

Court fees might need to rise

As Idaho’s judicial branch came up for its budget hearing before lawmakers, Idaho Supreme Court Administrator Patti Tobias told legislative budget writers, “Caseloads are increasing during these turbulent times.” District courts in Idaho have seen an unprecedented 17 percent increase in civil filings in the past year, she said.

The courts are prepared to revert $1.3 million, 4.3 percent of their budget, if absolutely necessary, she told lawmakers, but said, “It worries me to death.” Already, judges have agreed to work two days without pay, and all court employees are being ordered to take a two-day unpaid furlough. Meeting the full holdback means a continuation of dramatic cuts in hours and subscriptions at the state law library, canceling of key training, and delays in replacing iSTARS computers at counties across the state beyond their warranty date, among other steps.

If a permanent cut to that scale is needed, she said, an emergency surcharge may need to be added to civil and criminal court filings and technology fees may need to be increased to keep the iSTARS system up and running. “We can’t slow down justice,” Tobias said. “We can’t stop hearing certain types of cases. … We can’t say to any Idahoan, ‘You don’t deserve justice as provided by the Constitution.’ ”

An easy savings - others tougher

In perhaps the easiest savings lawmakers will make in this year’s budget, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted unanimously in favor of the governor’s recommendation to put off paying for fire suppression costs until after the end of the fiscal year each year, when the actual amount of the bills is known. That saves an estimated $10 million in this year’s budget, though the bills still will be paid. They’ll just be paid out of the following year’s budget each year.

“That way, instead of trying to guess what the costs will be halfway through the fiscal year, the Legislature would wait … and appropriate the actual amount,” explained legislative budget analyst Ray Houston. The move is similar to one the Legislature already made several years ago for agricultural pest control deficiency warrants and hazardous materials cleanup payments; it includes a policy change to make the new approach permanent.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, moved to approve the governor’s recommendation, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously with no discussion. This is the one accounting change contained in the governor’s budget proposal that results in a major change in the numbers; other savings will be more difficult.

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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