BOISE – While much of the nation endorsed a sharp change in political direction Tuesday, Idaho went its own way – the same way it’s headed for the past four years, only more so.
“Here in Idaho, it’s a different story – it’s about staying the course,” said Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko. “It’s about fiscal responsibility, about understanding that government needs to be small.”
So as Idaho heads into what’s widely expected to be a very tough legislative session in January and a difficult year for a state budget still crimped by the downturn and now lacking the fat reserve funds and federal stimulus checks that helped ease that the past two years, newly re-elected Gov. Butch Otter had this promise:
“Our focus for the next four years … is to continue on exactly what we started the last four years.”
Otter presided over an unprecedented cut in school funding this year, slicing $128.5 million – 7.5 percent – from the state’s K-12 public schools. At the same time, higher education took even bigger cuts, and the state’s Medicaid program was funded last year only by pushing a month’s worth of bills into this year.
Look for more cuts to come, even as the state’s economy improves.
Lawmakers are wary about economic recovery; though state tax revenues are up $14 million over projections for the first three months of the fiscal year, few are ready to declare the hard times over.
“From what I’ve seen, we’re going to be faced with a fairly substantial budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, trying to make up for the one-time money that we used to balance the budget in the current fiscal year,” said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “So I certainly don’t see this next session as being an opportunity to enhance funding for education.”
With big GOP gains in Idaho – Republicans picked up five seats in the state House, boosting their supermajority in the Legislature from three-quarters of the seats to four-fifths, while also holding every statewide office and taking every seat in the congressional delegation – there’s little appetite for a tax increase to cope with the shortfall.
“I think the message people said was that they weren’t real interested in coming up with more money,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. Unless legislators believe budget-cutting will result in “such severe consequences that people can’t stomach it, my guess is that the majority is going to continue doing what they’ve done,” he said.
Rusche said Democrats will push proposals to boost job creation, as they did last year. But with smaller numbers, they’ll have even less say in the agenda lawmakers follow.
The coming legislative session, Rusche said, likely will look “a lot like last year.”
That’s not promising for Otter’s signature issue – improving the state’s roads – for which a special task force will present recommendations on Dec. 1. Otter’s been unsuccessful in his first four years in convincing lawmakers that they should increase taxes and fees for roads to preserve a deteriorating system of state highways and bridges; last year, he didn’t even try.
Idaho lawmakers will gather in North Idaho for a three-day tour starting today, with party leadership election caucuses tonight, transportation presentations and a speech from the governor in Coeur d’Alene on Monday, and sessions Tuesday on health care, timber and energy. Goedde said he expects the mood at the gathering to be “somber.”
Otter said this year’s election was “one of the toughest” he’s faced, though he won by a large margin. “It was one of the toughest because we did some tough things,” he said. “But we decided four years ago, it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. The right thing was to balance the budget. The right thing was to push back when we felt the federal government was extending their authority beyond what the Constitution says. And the right thing is to continue to build our economy.”