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Lawmakers move to save state jobs

Fri., March 13, 2009, 11:13 a.m.

BOISE - Idaho lawmakers voted Friday to set a budget for next year even lower than Gov. Butch Otter is now recommending, but use more of the the federal stimulus money than he recommended to save state jobs.

The Legislature’s joint budget committee approved the new spending target of $2.5079 billion on a 19-1 vote, after a two-hour debate that overlapped half an hour into the time senators were supposed to be in session, leaving the Senate majority leader fuming.

Lawmakers still must set budgets for every state agency, but the target will govern how much they can budget - all the budgets must fit within the target.

The new target, plus spending more of the stimulus money, could enable lawmakers to set a budget for next year that cuts public schools by 3.4 percent, rather than the governor’s recommended 6.3 percent. It also could mean a statewide personnel cutback of roughly 3 percent, rather than the 5 percent that Otter favors.

However, it would cut into part or all of the $45 million in stimulus money that Otter wanted to direct into a $15 million boost in the state’s drinking and clean water loan funds and $30 million in additional road projects beyond those already identified. Instead, that money would be used to help balance the state budget, including items the governor proposed funding, and to offset the proposed personnel cuts.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he applauds the governor for wanting to create jobs with that money through construction projects, but said he was surprised the governor wanted to spend the entire $45 million that way.

“Those jobs are important, but we also need the existing jobs that we have,” Cameron said.

The spending target that lawmakers set today largely differs from the governor’s in how it would make use of federal stimulus funds; Otter said yesterday he wanted to bank half of the money that’s coming for public schools against future economic downturns. Lawmakers instead would spend $40 million of that on public schools next year.

The Legislature’s new budget target is $42.3 million below the governor’s latest adjusted revenue target for fiscal year 2010, and about $50 million below the figure JFAC set a month ago, before the stimulus bill passed.

The sole “no” vote came from Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, who earlier said she wasn’t ready to vote. “I feel so uneasy being asked to make a decision like that today with all this information being thrown at me,” McGeachin said.

But Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said, “We do have to move on and get things done, or we’ll be here ‘til Christmas. …. We have to make decisions, and those decisions will have repercussions.”

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “We have had reason after reason to put that off. We need to get done and get out of here, and the first thing we need to do is set that revenue number.”

While the members of the joint committee voted, an impatient Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis stood in the doorway of the hearing room, checking his watch repeatedly.

After the vote, Cameron said, “This was, in our opinion, a reasonable, defensible number.”

He said the governor’s numbers don’t add up, given all the known expenses the state is facing. “You’ve got about a $50 million hole in his budget,” Cameron said.

Last year, worried about a possible economic downturn, lawmakers set their budget target $40 million below the governor’s revenue estimate, a decision they later were glad of when state revenues plummeted due to the recession.

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