January 9, 2011 in Idaho

Budget crunch dominates talk among Idaho lawmakers

By The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – There’s a desperate edge to the talk in Boise as Idaho’s legislative session approaches.

“It’s not going to be a fun place to be in the Capitol this year,” said new Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “We’re probably facing the worst year coming up that I’ve ever seen.”

“It’ll be ugly,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle.

Idaho is facing a big budget challenge, with estimates of the possible shortfall for the coming year ranging from $100 million to $500 million.

There’s no shortfall yet – the current year’s budget is balanced, as required by law, and revenues are coming in slightly ahead of target. But that’s only because $270 million in one-time money, from now-drained savings accounts, federal stimulus funds and one-time shifts, is propping up the books.

Another $69.5 million in statutory requirements for additional funding, to cover things like more kids in public schools and more people on Medicaid, must be added in the coming year just to keep Idaho where it is.

That adds up to nearly $340 million, far more than state tax revenues are expected to grow next year.

“It’s a huge hole, and we can’t fill it without either cutting services or raising taxes,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

There’s more talk about tax increases – or, as most prefer to call them, new revenues or even “user fees” – than there’s been in the Idaho Statehouse in years.

But there are plenty of lawmakers in the GOP-dominated Legislature who bridle at the very idea.

“With one out of every 10 Idahoans out of work, it’s awful hard to raise taxes,” Broadsword said.

Said Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, “Sometimes the people you punish are the people who can least afford it.”

Public schools make up the largest single piece of Idaho’s state budget, and last year, lawmakers imposed an unprecedented $128.5 million, 7.5 percent cut in school funding. Those cuts would continue under virtually every budget scenario being tossed around in the Capitol – the question is whether more would be piled on.

Idaho also faces a big hole in Medicaid, the state-federal program that funds health coverage for the poor and disabled. Big chunks may have to be cut out of Idaho’s already-lean program, even though every dollar cut means losing another three in federal funds – along with the jobs and services in Idaho those funds now underwrite. There’s also a toll in human suffering for the poor and disabled patients involved.

One major tax proposal already has been unveiled – a $1.25 increase in the tax on a pack of cigarettes. House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, plans to sponsor the bill, which is mainly aimed at discouraging smoking and related health costs, but also would add $51 million a year to the state’s coffers. He calls it a user fee.

“I’m willing to bet that we’re going to be discussing some kind of revenue enhancement, and I don’t think we can get there taxing tobacco and going home without anything else,” said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. “But as you know, tax increases in this Legislature create very long sessions and are a very bitter pill to swallow.”

Among other issues:

• The Idaho Transportation Department is proposing another $162 million in highway bonding to complete a multiyear, statewide, bond-funded construction program. Half the money would go to the Garwood-to-Sagle project on U.S. Highway 95, and the other half would be for a new section of state Highway 16 in the Boise area. The North Idaho piece would fund widening Highway 95 for the 12 miles from Chilco to Granite, near Athol.

But opposition to the idea of borrowing against future federal highway allocations has been growing in the Legislature, and the new House transportation chairman long has been a critic of the idea. Meanwhile, Keough is pushing to expand the proposal to extend the widening north all the way to Sagle.

• A flurry of proposals in recent years to curb local redevelopment authorities hasn’t led to changes, but Lake says the issue isn’t going away and he expects it to be dealt with this year. New Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, is among the advocates of curbing the local authorities’ powers.

• AARP wants lawmakers to amend an anti-abortion law passed last year that also permits health care providers to decline to provide patient-requested end-of-life care if it would violate the provider’s conscience. The seniors organization wants the end-of-life provisions removed from the conscience law, which mostly deals with abortion-related issues.

• Lawmakers also will wrestle with a troubled, privately run state prison; a spotty and duplicative emergency medical services system; legislation aimed at boosting jobs; a new state-funded study on privatizing liquor sales; and proposed new laws on everything from texting while driving to immigration to wolves.

Said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, “This is going to be a tough session.”

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