BOISE - Idaho Gov. Butch Otter promises “more of the same” from him for Idaho’s upcoming legislative session – with a lean, cautious approach to new spending or programs, despite the state’s recovering economy.
“I would rather be a little short on the front end, and perhaps under-promise and over-deliver,” Otter said. “That’s what I think we’ve done in the last seven years with the help of the Legislature, and that’s what I’m planning on doing with the rest of my time on office.”
Otter’s comments came as he continued to tamp down expectations for the election-year legislative session that will convene on Jan. 6, just months before Idaho’s May 20 primary election. Otter’s already drawn a primary challenge from Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, and a Democratic challenger, A.J. Balukoff; every seat in the Legislature also will be on the ballot.
Last week, Otter said he wanted a big, statewide poll conducted over the coming year before considering whether to propose funding increases for transportation in 2015, and predicted a short session relatively free from controversy.
Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, said once basic needs are covered for state government for the coming year, “There just isn’t much money to do anything new.”
Both Otter and Revier addressed the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho annual conference on Wednesday, a traditional run-up to Idaho’s legislative session; it drew a capacity crowd of more than 400 legislators, lobbyists, local officials, business people, tax professionals and more.
Otter predicted an increase of between 3 percent and 3.5 percent in the state budget for the coming fiscal year, which will begin July 1, 2014. “We’re going to focus on replenishing some of those institutions that the Constitution tells us is our responsibility – we’ll focus on those first,” he said.
Idaho’s Constitution specifically tasks the Legislature to “establish and maintain” its public school system. It also requires the state to “establish and support institutions” for the public good, including educational institutions and prisons.
“Then, next, other proper roles of government that we can agree need to be replenished,” Otter said. “And finally, well maybe not finally, replenish our savings.”
Said the governor, “I don’t know what we would’ve done in 2008 if we hadn’t had $400 million in savings.” The state drew on those savings through the years of its economic downturn, but still made big budget cuts, including to public schools. More than half a billion dollars was trimmed out of the state budget between fiscal years 2009 and 2011; this year’s general fund budget of $2.781 billion remains below what Idaho budgeted in 2008.
Revier said, “The good news is that general fund revenues are recovering from the recession. … The general fund is forecasted to return to the fiscal year 2008 levels by next fiscal year.”
Revier said Otter, who won’t unveil his budget proposal until his State of the State address to lawmakers on Jan. 6, has made it clear that it will include funding for four key items:
—- Starting implementation of the recommendations of Otter’s education reform task force
—- “Health and human safety needs”
—- Addressing a maintenance backlog
—- Covering increased employer health care costs
The state is expecting a substantial increase in those costs, to the tune of $1,400 per employee, she said, and covering that will be “a significant investment in our state’s workforce.”
“We expect a conservative budget that doesn’t over-commit,” Revier said.
Idaho Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said she expected caution from the governor in an election year, but was “disappointed” by what she heard.
“It’s our job to do good policy for the people we represent,” she said. “I hope we actually get something accomplished.”