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Guv’s budget chief: ‘Not much money to do anything new’

Jani Revier, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, told the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho today, “We expect a conservative budget that doesn’t over-commit.” She 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.” Idaho transferred an additional $85 million in unexpected revenue to its budget stabilization fund on July 1, she noted, but said, “Our state economist has warned that much of this revenue is one-time.” The budget stabilization fund, the state’s main rainy-day savings account, now has $135 million in it – nearly reaching its statutory cap.

“As the state’s economy began to recover, the governor set forth the following principles” for the state budget, Revier said. They are: Not to grow at the same rate as the economy; maintaining structural balance; and replenishing rainy-day accounts.  “We are not going to simply restore lost general fund from the agencies that we cut,” she said. “The governor wants to focus on making strategic reinvestments,” focusing on core areas of government and not losing efficiencies gained during the years of downturn.

Revier said Otter has made clear that certain items will be included in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2015: Recommendations of his education task force; health and human safety needs; addressing a maintenance backlog; and covering increased employer healthcare 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.” She said once basic needs are covered for state government, “There just isn’t much money to do anything new.”

PERSI change drops Luna’s proposed school budget hike from 5.9% to 5.4%

State Schools Supt. Tom Luna’s proposed 5.9 percent budget increase for public schools next year has dropped to 5.4 percent, Clark Corbin of Idaho EdNews reports, but not because Luna’s changed what he’s asking for. Instead, a recent decision by the PERSI board to hold off on a scheduled rate increase, due to strong earnings in the pension fund, changed the overall numbers. The Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho covers state and local government employees, school district employees and more; PERSI is among benefit costs built into calculations for all state agency budgets.

Tim Hill, deputy superintendent for public school finance, told Corbin the PERSI change made a $7.2 million difference in the public school budget calculations. Now, Luna’s proposed increase for next year comes in at $69.9 million, down from the previous $77 million; you can read Corbin’s full report here.

Luna wants 5.9% increase for schools next year, to start phasing in task force reforms

State school Superintendent Tom Luna told the Meridian Chamber of Commerce today that he endorses “every one” of the 20 recommendations of an education stakeholders task force appointed by Gov. Butch Otter, and has built his budget request for public schools for next year to match them – including a request for a 5.9 percent, $77 million increase in state general funds. “Taken together they will fundamentally transform our education system in Idaho for the better,” Luna said. “They’re all important.”

Luna said he agrees with Otter that the reforms will cost between $350 million and $400 million a year in new money, and that they must be phased in over several years. “While this budget only addresses one fiscal year, I believe it sets us up for a fiscally sound structure for funding the task force recommendations over multiple years,” he said.

Luna’s budget proposal calls for spending $42 million next year for the first phase of a new teacher career ladder, a proposal that will cost $250 million over six years and eventually boost Idaho’s starting teacher pay to $40,000, a third higher than it is now. The plan also would establish a new three-tiered professional licensing system for teachers, with the second tier eventually starting at $50,000 a year, and the top tier at $60,000. The proposal for next year, he said, is “a major step in transforming the way we pay Idaho’s teachers so as a state we can attract great teachers and retain the ones that we already have.”

Luna’s proposal also includes $13.4 million for school technology next year; $5.64 million for new opportunities for high school juniors and seniors to take advanced courses; and $16.5 million for the first installment of restoring $82.5 million in operating funds that have been cut from Idaho’s schools during the state’s economic downturn. The task force suggested phasing in the restoration over five years.

Luna’s budget request totals $1.3779 billion in state general funds, up from this year’s $1.3008 billion figure.  He told the crowd of 80-plus at the Meridian Chamber luncheon that he wants input on the proposal, from everyone – parents, teachers, business people, and more, and is open to making changes. He noted that the Legislature won’t convene for three months, and then it’ll debate for another three. He called his proposal “the beginning of a conversation.”

After his talk, Luna said he’s had “a very positive reception” from legislators, education stakeholders and others to his plan, which anticipates a substantial funding increase for schools not only next year, but likely each year for the next six. Luna said that's what it would take to accomplish the task force's plan. “I think that people are really focused on finding a way to make these recommendations a reality.”

Luna asks for more time to craft school budget request to match task force recommendations

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna has asked for more time to prepare the 2014-15 public schools budget request so he can build it around an education reform task force’s recommendations, Idaho Education News reports. While state agencies typically submit budget requests around Sept. 1, Luna submitted only a placeholder “statutory budget” on Sept. 3, IdahoEdNews reporter Clark Corbin writes, and asked for an extra 30 days to submit a formal budget request “so I will be able to submit a budget that is relevant to the Task Force’s recommendations.” The request was granted by Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, and Idaho legislative services director Jeff Youtz. You can read Corbin’s full report here.

Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, told Idaho EdNews, “Superintendent Luna will be working closely with all stakeholders as well as the staff at the State Department of Education on developing a budget request that addresses the recommendations of the Task Force.” The stakeholders task force, appointed by Otter and coordinated by the State Board of Education, gave near-unanimous approval to a sweeping set of proposals last month, from boosting Idaho teachers’ pay to advancing students to the next grade only when they’ve mastered the material.

Superintendents to Luna: ‘We are starving to death in our districts’

Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna met with school district superintendents from around the state this morning, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News; he was asked about everything from the budget to Common Core to the state’s controversial new high school WiFi contract. Richert reports that American Falls Superintendent Tom Bollinger put Luna on the spot about the state’s decision to park $85 million of surplus money in its rainy-day fund, the Budget Stabilization Fund. “We are starving to death in our districts,” Bollinger said. Luna responded that there’s some “wisdom” in replenishing the savings. But he did say public schools are headed into a pivotal budget year in 2014, because of better-than-expected state revenues, and because an education reform task force is expected to make its recommendation to Gov. Butch Otter later this summer.

Richert reports that the only question about the WiFi contract was from Cottonwood Superintendent Rene Forsmann, who wondered when she could expect to see her district hooked up. You can read Richert’s full report here.

Idaho closes fiscal year with surplus, puts $85M more into rainy-day fund

Idaho’s state tax revenue came in 6.5 percent ahead of forecast in June, closing out the fiscal year with a $92.5 million surplus over the $2.658 billion the state had expected to take in for the year. That’s 3.5 percent; it’s a 6.3 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

The higher-than-predicted tax revenues also triggered legislation sought by Gov. Butch Otter this year to transfer $85.4 million of the year-end balance into the state’s main savings account, the Budget Stabilization Fund. That boosts the total in the account to more than $135 million, a move Otter lauded today.

“Don’t get the idea that we’re flush just because we ended the budget year with a few extra bucks,” Otter declared. “We have plenty of needs and plenty of priorities. But the best way to ensure economic stability and continued growth is to remain prudent, cautious and responsible in how we allocate every one of those taxpayer dollars.”

The state’s surplus comes as agencies continue to struggle with years of budget cuts that haven’t been restored, and school districts across the state have increasingly sought local property tax hikes to make up shortfalls in state funding.

Otter’s office said in a statement that the year-end results “show the wisdom of his shared commitment with the Legislature to ensuring government does not grow as fast as Idaho’s economy and to continue refilling the state’s various rainy day funds,” adding, “That’s especially true in light of continuing uncertainty about the federal budget, federal fiscal policies and their impact on economic recovery.” You can read the General Fund Revenue Report here.  Click below for a report from AP reporter John MIller, who notes that this makes the third straight year state tax revenues have exceeded forecasts, and that every category of collections, from sales taxes on retail goods to personal and corporate income taxes, came in at levels higher than originally estimated last year.

Idaho scrimps on state employee pay

As University of Idaho President Duane Nellis leaves Idaho this week to become president of Texas Tech, his parting advice to the state was to invest in its workers by funding raises for state employees. That’s something Idaho Gov. Butch Otter declared a priority early in his first term, noting the gap between state worker pay and market rates. But since the downturn hit, Idaho hasn't funded state employee raises in four of the last five years. Now the state is relying on agencies to find budget savings in order to give some workers pay boosts.

Agencies have been directed to use any savings they can identify in their budgets for either one-time bonuses, if the savings are one-time, or for ongoing raises, if they’re efficiencies that will continue. “They’re going through that process,” Otter said. “In fact, I’ve OK’d quite a few of those agency directors’ programs.” Under plans approved by the governor’s Division of Financial Management, $5 million in raises and $4 million in one-time bonuses are going out either this year or in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1; a few agencies still are working on their plans. But workers in agencies that don’t have savings are out of luck.

Just 23 percent of state workers have gotten raises averaging $1,500 under the plans, and 30 percent have gotten bonuses averaging $900. “Every agency is different,” said Jani Revier, Otter’s budget director. “It was done on the amount each agency could afford.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

By the way, Nellis earned $335,000 as president of the University of Idaho. At Texas Tech, his base salary will be $427,000, plus a $12,000-a-year car allowance, a $60,000-a-year housing allowance and a deferred compensation package.

Idaho tax revenue for March beats forecast by 4.4 percent

State tax figures are in for the month of March, and they beat the forecast by 4.4 percent or $5.8 million. That’s the third consecutive month that tax revenues came in ahead of expectations, and it pushes the fiscal year-to-date surplus to $22.6 million, which is 1.2 percent ahead of the projection. Still ahead is April, the biggest revenue month of the year. You can read the DFM’s monthly Idaho General Fund Revenue Report here.

State budget outlook not as sunny when looking another year out…

With current state tax revenues, Idaho's state budget is on track for a substantial ending balance July 1 of as much as $37 million, according to figures presented to lawmakers today by legislative budget chief Cathy Holland-Smith. That doesn't count $18.3 million in supplemental budget requests that lawmakers will consider in January, but Holland-Smith said those requests are likely to fall substantially, based on slower than expected Medicaid caseload growth and differences in prison inmate forecasting. If all $18.3 million were needed for the supplemental requests, the state would end this budget year July 1 with an $18.7 million ending balance, Holland-Smith said.

She then presented an estimate for the fiscal year 2014 budget, the year that starts July 1, including various assumptions about budget requests. If all requests were funded, state workers were given 1 percent raises, and state revenue were to grow by 4 percent, the hypothetical bottom line would be negative, to the tune of $169.5 million. That's in part because one-time money from reserve funds has been built into the state budget to help it balance each year in recent years. Idaho still would have some reserve funds available; as of June 30, 2013, the state's two main reserve funds, the Budget Stabilization Fund and the Public Education Stabilization Fund, would hold a projected total of $98.6 million.

Holland-Smith cautioned, however, that the assumptions include Idaho continuing its Catastrophic Health Care Fund program, which could go away if the state opted to expand its Medicaid program largely at federal expense. Other assumptions also could change.

Budget figures changing, between school reform laws’ failure and H&W updates…

Legislative Budget Director Cathy Holland-Smith prefaced her presentation to the Legislative Council with a caveat: Many of the numbers will change from what she's prepared. That's because voters rejected the “Students Come First” school reform laws, meaning state Superintendent Tom Luna's budget request for next year, which was based on those laws, will need a re-do. Plus, just last night, the state Department of Health & Welfare submitted a substantial budget revision, Holland-Smith said, one that likely will be positive. “We know caseloads are down somewhat,” she said.

Between those two factors - affecting the largest portions of Idaho's state budget - “A substantial amount of the budget request will have to change,” Holland-Smith said.

State tax revenue down for Oct., surplus for year on track to hit $30.1M

Idaho state tax revenues came in $10 million below projections in October, for a year-to-date $6.9 million below forecast, a 0.8 percent lag. After accounting for amounts the Legislature must reimburse deficiency accounts for fires, pests and hazardous material incidents, the state now looks on track to end the fiscal year with a $30.1 million balance, $25.7 million more than was anticipated when the legislative session adjourned last spring. You can read the DFM's general fund revenue report for October here, and the Legislature's General Fund Budget Monitor here; both look at the impact of the October numbers. In a few minutes, the Legislative Council will hear a state budget update from Cathy Holland-Smith, manager of budget and policy analysis.
  

Idaho state tax revenue beats forecasts for September

Idaho's state tax revenues beat forecasts in September, driven by a month of strong individual income tax collections. The total revenue for the month of $248.1 million was 3.7 percent, or $8.8 million, over the forecast; individual income tax receipts, which had missed forecasts in both July and August, came in $12.5 million above the forecast for September. Sales taxes came in slightly ahead of forecasts, while corporate and miscellaneous taxes dipped below.

The strong month put the state's year-to-date revenues back on track with forecasts, running 0.5 percent ahead. That means state tax revenues overall are running 5.7 percent ahead of last year; forecasts anticipated a 5.2 percent increase. You can read the full general fund revenue report here from the state Division of Financial Management.
  

State tax revenue for August just below forecast, but well above last year’s

Idaho's state tax revenue for August came in 1.1 percent below forecasts, but 3.7 percent higher than last August, according to the state Division of Financial Management. Overall, general fund tax collections for the second month of the fiscal year were $197.6 million. Individual income tax withholding saw the biggest shortfall compared to projections, pushing down individual income tax collections for the month to 7.2 percent below the forecast. But sales taxes came in above forecast by 2.5 percent for the month, and were 15.2 percent over last August's figure. Corporate income tax, product taxes and miscellaneous revenue all beat projections. For the fiscal year to date, state tax revenues are running 1.3 percent below forecast but 4.2 percent above last year's level; you can read the latest General Fund Revenue Report here from the DFM.

State finances still on track for budget surplus, even after $35M tax cut…

Wondering where the state's finances stand? The Division of Financial Management recently revised its fiscal year 2013 General Fund revenue forecast downward by $29.6 million to $2.6077 million; add that to the state's beginning balance for fiscal year '13, which started July 1, and there's $36.1 million more available than the estimate used by the Legislature this year to set the FY 2013 original appropriation. Included in the revisions: Impacts of law changes, including a $35 million permanent tax cut for corporations and top earners.

The revised forecast is 3.2 percent above actual collections in fiscal year 2012. The state still must cover costs for fires, pests and hazardous material incidents that occurred last year, but even after that, there's an estimated ending balance for FY 2013 of $31.8 million. That's $27.3 million higher than what lawmakers expected at the close of this year's legislative session - in other words, if the forecast holds, it's a surplus.

Although July state tax revenues came in slightly below the forecast, at $3.4 million below, revenues still are tracking higher this year than last year - $10.1 million higher. The Legislature's monthly General Fund Budget Monitor report lays out the numbers; you can read it here.
  

Otter: Fiscal year ends better than expected, state ‘well positioned’

Gov. Butch Otter is lauding the state's year-end financial position, saying, “I’m grateful that Idaho’s economy continues to improve and that more Idahoans are finding work.” Otter also says he doesn't consider the state's year-end excess revenue, compared to its projections, to be a surplus, since lawmakers passed legislation this year to direct any such leftovers into state rainy-day accounts, which were drained through the years of economic downturn.

“I am also pleased that we have been able to set aside almost $75.5 million for future rainy days,” Otter said. “We begin fiscal 2013 with a lot of uncertainty about the national and global economies and fiscal policies, but with a higher level of certainty and stability in Idaho’s State government. That should translate into still more opportunity for growth and future prosperity here at home.” Click below for Otter's full statement, and a Q-and-A on how the administration views the year-end revenue numbers.

Idaho closes fiscal year with surplus, refills drained rainy-day funds

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Idaho ended the 2012 fiscal year with more revenue than forecast in January, allowing the state to replenish reserves to nearly $90 million after draining the rainy day funds since the economy soured in 2008. The state said Friday it booked $2.59 billion in receipts through June, amounting to about $35 million more than anticipated. That's a 5.9 percent increase over the 2011 fiscal year. With the 2013 budget balanced, the excess has been deposited into four rainy day funds, including public education reserves that now total about $37 million. Acting state controller Brandon Woolf said in a statement accompanying the final year's revenue announcement that Idaho's fiscal house is in good order. Sales tax for the year came in at $1 billion, about 1.4 percent more than expected.

You can read the June state general fund revenue report here, from the Idaho Division of Financial Management.
  

Idaho school funding again ranks 50th in nation

Idaho's school spending per pupil ranks 50th in the nation for a second straight year, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census, while Washington's is 32nd, one place worst than last year's ranking of 31st. Washington education officials bemoaned the ranking as too low, but Idaho's said their lower ranking wasn't particularly concerning; Idaho bested only Utah.

“Funding is a factor in education but it’s not the most important factor,” said Idaho State Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath, “and it is not the factor that determines the quality of an education system.” She noted that Idaho - like Washington - has higher than average student test scores. The U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progess shows eighth-graders in both states scored above average in reading, math and science in 2011. “In Idaho, our state spends less per student compared to most other states, but our students continually outperform students across the United States in reading, math and in science,” McGrath said. “It’s clear that Idaho is doing well spending its resources effectively and efficiently to benefit Idaho students.”

The census figures, which are drawn from the 2009-2010 school year, also include rankings for school spending per $1,000 in per-capita income for each state. By that measure, Idaho improved slightly from last year's ranking of 41st, coming in 38th. But it's still far below where the state ranked back in 2001, when it was 17th. Former Idaho state chief economist Mike Ferguson, now the head of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, said that echoes a report he released in April that found that the share of Idaho's personal income that goes to schools dropped 23 percent from 2000 to 2013; his report dubbed that drop “a stunning reduction in the state's commitment to public schools.” Ferguson said Wednesday, “The fact is that we've been essentially disinvesting in children.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Otter asks state agencies to brace for possible cuts in federal funds

Gov. Butch Otter has asked state agencies to begin planning for possible cuts in their federal funds of 20 percent. Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey reports that in a speech last week at the IACI annual conference in Sun Valley, Otter said, “I’ve asked them to factor in a 20 percent cut in their federal funds and then come back to me with an action plan on what we’re gonna have to do.” Popkey reports that no cuts have been ordered as yet; Otter is preparing for possible federal cuts, and the 20 percent figure was suggested by Lt. Gov. Brad Little as a worst-case scenario; he expects something closer to 10 percent. You can read Popkey's full report here.

It includes this comment from Little: “If you did 20 percent, you’d have so much stress on the economy that it would slow the economy and make the numbers even worse. We don’t want to have a gun pointed at our heads like some other states where you turn a bunch of prisoners out, go to four-day-a-week schools and close all the parks. We can do this if we’re smart about it.”
  

May state tax revenue slightly off, year-to-date surplus at $33.7M

Idaho's state tax revenues for May came in $3.4 million below forecast, but with just one month left to go in the fiscal year, year-to-date collections are still $33.7 million ahead of forecast. Individual income taxes were well below forecasts, but that was due to bigger than expected refund payments, and the state's Division of Financial Management said it reflects changes in historical refund patterns that have shown up throughout the year. Much of the drop in individual income tax revenue for the month was offset by a big national mortgage settlement that brought the state $13.3 million. You can read the DFM's general fund revenue report here, and the legislative budget office's budget monitor report here.

April state tax revenues beat forecast, for fifth straight month

April is by far the biggest month of the year for state tax revenue collections, as taxpayers all over the state file their income tax returns during the month, so it's closely watched for signs of the health of the overall state budget. The numbers are in now, and April's collections beat the forecast, coming in a scant $500,000 above but bringing the year-to-date surplus - the amount collected over the state's forecast for the year - to just over $37 million. That's for the 2012 fiscal year, which runs through July 1. Among the drivers of the April surplus was the sales tax, which was up 6.3 percent from the same time last year; and miscellaneous taxes, which are up significantly due to strong interest earnings, a settlement with a drug company and high collections from the mine license tax. Both individual and corporate income taxes were below forecast for the month, but both remain ahead of forecasts for the fiscal year to date.

You can read the state Division of Financial Management's April revenue report here, and the Legislature's April Budget and Revenue Monitor here. This is the fifth straight month that Idaho's state tax revenues have exceeded forecasts, and lawmakers budgeted below the forecasts. State lawmakers set the current year's budget assuming just 3 percent growth in state revenues; instead, it's been more than 5.7 percent. That means a big and growing year-end surplus this year, which lawmakers have decided should go directly into the state's rainy-day fund. With the current numbers, nearly $60 million will go into the state's Budget Stabilization Fund on July 1.

Report: Idaho’s school funding system is trending toward violating state Constitution

Idaho's former longtime chief state economist, Mike Ferguson, has released a 20-page report on public school funding that reaches a series of startling conclusions: Public school funding, as a share of total state spending, has dropped dramatically since 2000. Even as state lawmakers in 2006 eliminated the key property tax levy for school operations while raising the state's sales tax by a penny, schools that saw decreasing state funding have turned increasingly to property tax levies, which, unlike the levy eliminated in 2006, are no longer “equalized” with state funding and accentuate disparities in wealth among the state's school districts. The result: Idaho's current school funding system may be violating two key provisions of the state Constitution, requiring the Legislature to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” and requiring taxes to be imposed uniformly. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“Actions that drive local school districts into making dramatic increases in the use of local property tax resources … raise serious doubt that the Legislature is fulfilling its Constitutional obligations,” Ferguson wrote. “It is probably not realistic to expect a quick fix. It is reasonable to expect an open and honest discussion of the direction of Idaho's public school funding, and whether it is living up to the duties and responsibilities handed down by Idaho's founding fathers. Hopefully this report will contribute to that discussion.”

You can read the full report here; it explores Idaho's public school funding from 1980 to 2013. Among the figures revealed by its analysis: Idaho spent 34 percent of its state spending on public schools, on average, in the 1980s and 1990s; that had dropped to 26 percent by fiscal year 2012. The share of Idaho's personal income that went to schools - which Ferguson describes as Idaho's “funding effort” for schools, or “the share of our aggregate income invested in our children,” dropped from a steady 4.4 percent average in the '80s and '90s, and 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2000, to 3.5 percent in fiscal 2012; in the governor's executive budget for 2013, it fell to 3.4 percent. Ferguson noted that's a 23 percent decline, a change he called “a stunning reduction in the state's commitment to public schools.”

And more than two-thirds of Idaho's school districts now have supplemental property tax levies, which are voter-approved local taxes that raise sharply varying amounts from one district to the next, depending on the local tax base. Even after the elimination of the major operations levy in 2006, “Considerable amounts of public school funding are still derived from property taxes, and the relative share is once again increasing,” he wrote.

Ferguson is now director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a non-profit, non-partisan grant-funded organization whose mission is “to provide Idaho citizens and elected officials with fact-based information and analysis they can use to make informed public policy decisions.”
  

State tax revenues beat forecasts for fourth straight month

March was the fourth straight month that state tax revenues came in ahead of forecast, running $3.9 million ahead, according to the latest figures. For the fiscal year to date, that puts the state $36.6 million ahead of projections. Among the strong spots: Sales taxes and individual income taxes. That brings state tax revenue growth to date for the fiscal year to 5.5 percent, well above the predicted 3.3 percent. You can read the state Division of Financial Management's monthly General Fund Revenue Report here, and the legislative budget office's General Fund Budget Monitor here.

The legislative monitor notes that that latest figures push Idaho tax revenue to $91.7 million more than last year at this time. The result, given HB 702, which passed this year and transfers any additional surpluses at the end of fiscal year 2012 into the Budget Stabilization Fund, will be larger deposits into that reserve account, up to nearly $60 million.
  

Rather than surplus, Cameron calls it just lesser ‘degrees of agony’

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said despite the positive budget outlook lawmakers are facing with state revenues growing, he doesn't feel like the state's in surplus mode, with its revenue still below 2008 levels. “From my way of thinking, a surplus is when you have paid all your bills and you have money left over,” he said. “We're not at that point. We haven't paid all our bills.” He pointed to tens of millions that state hospitals and nursing homes assessed themselves to help Idaho keep its federal Medicaid matching funds this year, and automatic salary fund reductions built into the public school budget going years out into the future. “That in my mind should be paid for,” he said. “So in my mind, we're not operating with a surplus.”

Said Cameron, “I guess early on I cringed at all the jubilation. … I'll be happy when we get back to revenues growing at a reasonable pace,” and ground lost since 2008 has been made up. “Then I'll breathe a sign of relief. Until then, it's more pain, it's just in degrees of agony.”

School data system working better now, lawmakers told

Idaho's longitudinal data system for public schools is working better now, JFAC members were informed today. After the big data upload in November to calculate school enrollment, legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee said the state Department of Education is reporting that 141 school districts or charter schools submitted error-free data, out of 159; that's up from just nine the previous year. “So it appears that there's been quite an improvement in the quality of the data that's being submitted from the school districts to the department,” Headlee said.

Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, noted, “The state spent millions on this longitudinal data system.” He asked how much school districts have spent. Tom Taggart, president of the Idaho Association of School Business Officials, said, “It's going to be an ongoing burden on the districts. It'll become less so after we've worked it out and accommodated it. I know in our district we've had five people directly involved and put hundreds of hours into it.”

The ups and downs of Idaho’s budget reserve funds…

Idaho's various reserve funds hit a high of $393 million total at the end of fiscal year 2008, but now they're projected to be at $30.4 million by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30. That includes the unendowed portion of the Millenium Fund, which comes from tobacco proceeds; the economic recovery reserve fund, which basically has been spent all the way down; the public education stabilization fund, which had $11 million on June 30, 2011, and is projected to have $15.5 million by the end of this fiscal year; the budget stabilization fund, also spent down; and the governor's emergency funds, which stand at $3 million.

Legislative budget analyst Ray Houston told JFAC, “It took you five years to get up to $400 million, and it took you four years to get down to $30 million.”

School reform laws could complicate budgeting for pay raises

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron noted that if lawmakers consider raises for state employees - known as CEC, or “change in employee compensation” in budgeting speak - the “Students Come First” school reform laws could complicate that when it comes to public schools. That's because the laws require a shift of 2.38 percent out of salary funds next year to fund technology boosts and teacher merit-pay bonuses.

“We know the governor, at least at this point, has recommended about a 3 percent CEC,” Cameron said. “One of the dilemmas we have is if you apply that to public schools, if they have 3 percent CEC and at the same time a 2.38 percent reduction, that won't translate to a 3 percent for public schools. We have to keep in mind how to work through that. … There may be a perception issue that there may be more revenue there than will be available.” Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith responded, “That's correct.”

State budget: ‘It really is good news, but it’s cautionary’

As Idaho lawmakers begin to plan for setting the fiscal year 2013 budget, they'll have a beginning balance left over from the current year, because state tax revenues came in so far above the amount for which they budgeted. Under current revenue forecasts, that'll be $130.3 million, legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith told JFAC this morning. “This $130 million … assumes that the revenue forecast will stay,” she said. “I think we can all assume that it will go down.”

Then, if state revenues next year grow by a hypothetical 3 percent, $26 million is automatically transferred to the state's budget stabilization fund, the next $15 million bump in the grocery tax credit is funded, and non-discretionary adjustments are covered to keep state services at their current level, lawmakers could cover all costs and still have $79.3 million left over. State agencies have submitted $147 million in requests for new line items vying to be funded from that pot next year, including restoring cuts; other potential uses include pay hikes for state employees who've long gone without; further replenshing drained rainy-day funds; or other moves. “It's going to be the call of the Legislature,” Holland-Smith said.

If state tax revenues next year grow by 4 percent rather than 3 percent, the amount available after covering costs for current service levels grows to $105.4 million. If it's 5 percent, the amount grows to $131.4 million.

“It really is good news, but it's cautionary, because there is a significant pent-up demand,” Holland-Smith said.

Latest numbers suggest $77 million state surplus, after covering all supplementals

Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith noted that there are differing views of the $16.2 million that state tax revenues have lagged behind forecasts since the start of the fiscal year on July 1. Though that's only a 1.6 percent shortfall from the forecast, and lawmakers budgeted well below the forecast, it suggests that “that revenue forecast is not going to hold,” she said.

“Right now, on paper, there's $160 million … of additional revenue that's available compared to when you budgeted,” she told lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. If Idaho then covered the $4.2 million in deficiency warrants that have been run up for fires and pest control, and funded all $30 million in supplemental budget requests for the current year that have come in, lawmakers still would have a $127.2 million surplus as they begin their budget-setting task for next year, if revenue continues to come in as predicted in the August state forecast.

“That's not likely to happen,” Holland-Smith said. Rather than growing by 6.4 percent, she said it's now looking like state revenue may grow at 4 or 5 percent, so the forecast could be revised. “It's likely that you're going to begin to see that pushdown,” she said. Because every 1 percent of the state general fund is $26 million, “You can quickly see where that would change,” she said. “We'd be probably right in the (range of) $50 million off of that $127 million surplus.”

That would leave lawmakers with a $77 million state budget surplus.

JFAC opens interim meeting…

Every member of the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has turned out for today's interim meeting, where the first agenda item is a general fund update. JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith that the lawmakers are looking forward to hearing about all the extra money the state's going to have.

Latest estimate on state budget surplus: $156.7 million

The Legislature's General Fund Monitor for November is out, and it puts into perspective the November state tax revenues, which came in $5.4 million below projections, making a cumulative shortfall below projections for the fiscal year to date of $16.2 million, or 1.6 percent. Lawmakers budgeted for well below the projected amounts, however. What the numbers mean: Idaho is looking at a year-end surplus of roughly $156.7 million in its general fund.

That's the difference between the ending balance lawmakers expected to have at the end of the fiscal year and the amount they're now projected to end up with, if the Legislature covered all fire, hazard and deficiency costs already incurred. It doesn't take into account supplemental budget requests for the current year that lawmakers will consider when they convene in January, but those total only about $30 million. You can  see the November General Fund Monitor here.