BOISE – Idaho lawmakers are moving toward much deeper budget cuts next year than Gov. Butch Otter has recommended, despite official economic forecasts suggesting the cuts may not be needed.
The Legislature’s joint budget committee voted to approve a budget target that calls for an additional $56.73 million in budget cuts next year. Otter had called for targeted cuts across most state agencies totaling $35.04 million. The vote was 15-4 along party lines, with the panel’s four Democrats objecting.
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said that even though the state economic forecast is for 6.9 percent revenue growth in 2012, “The co-chair and I felt like it was more prudent to budget at a 3 percent level. We felt more comfortable that we could actually hit that number.”
The difference between 6.9 percent revenue growth and 3 percent: $91.5 million.
The total budget cuts lawmakers are now anticipating, between Otter’s $35.04 million and the Legislature’s additional $56.73 million: $91.77 million.
That means if the 6.9 percent forecast proves correct, virtually none of the cuts would actually be needed.
“Do I like what some of those cuts are going to look like? No,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC vice chairwoman. “But I think it’s far more prudent to be realistic about what the budget’s going to be.”
Cameron said Idaho has spent all its budget reserves and no longer has any margin for error.
Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, objected that the budget target means lawmakers are assuming the state will have only 3 percent growth next year, when revenue growth so far this year is already at 4.8 percent. LeFavour said the economy is recovering, not souring. “I guess I find that pretty pessimistic and pretty low,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind so much if there weren’t so many lives in the balance. … I don’t think that ‘caution’ that puts lives at risk is really maybe the most prudent thing.”
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I think that it’s artificially low, and it forces us into making cuts to programs which are substantial. There are certain agencies that absolutely can’t sustain those cuts.”
Keough, however, said, “I was here … when we had to do (mid-year) holdbacks.” She said she’s heard consistently from state agencies, including schools, over the years that they want lawmakers to “set the number, even if it’s low – don’t turn us upside down in the middle of the year.”
The additional cuts in legislative estimates are roughly 2.2 percent of the state budget. If spread evenly among all state agencies – Otter’s cuts weren’t – the result would be an additional cut for public schools of $27.3 million below Otter’s recommendation. Because enrollment growth and other factors were built into the governor’s budget, that’d be $5.7 million less for schools than this year’s budget.
For colleges and universities, the additional cut beyond the governor’s budget would come to $4.7 million. The dollar difference from the 2011 appropriation for colleges and universities would be $7.6 million.