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Idaho schools’ budgets left intact

Panel decides against more cuts; some agencies must trim further

BOISE – Idaho schools will be spared from further budget cuts this year, the Legislature’s joint budget committee decided unanimously Friday, but likely will face big cuts next year.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a plan to tap into budget reserves and federal stimulus money that had been earmarked for next year’s K-12 school budget to avoid midyear cuts this year. On a party-line vote, with the panel’s four Democrats objecting, the committee passed the other part of the plan – a permanent 7.1 percent cut in this year’s state budget.

Although some of that – notably $86 million for schools – will be made up on a one-time basis, the move means most state agencies must cut 7.1 percent from their budgets by June 30. Some already have made those cuts after holdbacks announced by the governor in September. But some agencies that saw much smaller cuts last fall must dig deeper now.

“It does reflect very, very difficult choices, but at this point the budget for 2010 is balanced,” legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith told the joint committee after it finished its work.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “Albeit tenuously, it is balanced.”

State colleges and universities will lose $18.5 million from this year’s state funding, up from the $15.2 million Gov. Butch Otter ordered them to cut in September; they also lose another $10 million for a livestock research center that has been put on hold. The attorney general’s office will lose $1.2 million, up from the $433,200 it was ordered to cut in September.

“The bottom line is so much lower than the governor’s proposal,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. “It does give me some heartburn about what’s going to happen in (fiscal) 2011.”

Cameron said, “It’s very difficult, I think, for agencies to take a 7 percent reduction this late in the year. The only silver lining is that the agencies have been anticipating it and have been preparing for additional reductions. For some – Corrections, and Health and Welfare – it’s extremely difficult, but we don’t really have any other alternative.”

Those two agencies will have some, but not all, of their 7.1 percent cut made up on a one-time basis this year. But the decisions set the stage for deep cuts in next year’s budget, which would hit schools along with all other functions of state government.

To make it all work, the plan shifts $20 million from the state’s economic recovery reserve fund and $33.5 million from the budget stabilization fund into the general fund. That would leave the state with $97.9 million in three reserve funds – budget stabilization, public education stabilization, and economic recovery reserve – at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, instead of the $131.4 million anticipated in the budget Otter submitted to lawmakers in January.

Overall, the moves cut $226 million out of this year’s $2.5 billion general fund budget. But some of that is made up with infusions of dedicated or federal funds.

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