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Inslee to hold internet town hall on education

 OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee will take his plans for public schools to the public, in Rogers High School and three other locations, via Skype tonight.

With large screens set in the schools to carry the online video-phone connection, Inslee will unveil his proposals for the state to meet court orders to improve public schools, along with other education and public college initiatives for he will will include in his upcoming 2015-17 state budget. He will then take questions from audiences in four locations. 

He'll be live at Newport High School in Bellevue for one hour, starting at 6 p.m., and carried via Skype to the Rogers Commons, the Columbia Basin Technical Skills Center in Moses Lake and the Jason Lee Middle School Auditorium in Tacoma. . .

To read the rest of this item, or to comment, continue inside the blog.

Sunday Spin: Getting a closer look at IT spending

OLYMPIA – Tucked inside the 291-page budget Gov. Jay Inslee signed last week is a paragraph that tells state agencies to ask for money for new-fangled tech gear a better way.

It’s what’s known as a proviso, sort of a marching order from the Legislature, somewhat akin to an earmark from Congress. . . 

To read the rest of this item, or to comment, continue inside the blog.

Sunday Spin: Let’s skip the folksy budget analogies

OLYMPIA – It is a rare day in the session that some legislator doesn’t offer the folksy wisdom that the state would be fine if it would just balance the budget like the folks back home.

Sometimes, those folks are mom and pop entrepreneurs on Main Street, struggling to make payroll as sales drop and the costs rise. They tighten their belts, take a smaller profit, layoff a worker or two, have a few more go to part-time, maybe buy a smaller ad in the local high school yearbook.

More often, though, the folks are a family around the kitchen table, deciding how to stretch the paycheck for food, clothes, braces or the kids’ college fund after paying the mortgage and the utility bill. They make those hard choices on what to do without, a legislator will say in a floor speech. Maybe get another year out of the pickup, carpool to work, put off that trip to Disneyland until next summer.

Such homey examples are designed to communicate the state’s budget situation to the folks back home. But they may actually do the folks back home a disservice by oversimplifying what the state budget is.

 To read the rest of this item, or to comment, continue inside the blog.

Revenue prospects flat; political prospects high

OLYMPIA — Washington's revenue forecast was up just slightly for the rest of this biennium, and through the next two-year budget cycle, a state panel was told this afternoon.

On the upside, construction is improving and employment should slowly rise, although it won't get back to pre-recession levels until sometime in 2014. On the downside, manufacturing is off a bit and so are exports except for airplanes, state economist Steven Lerch told the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council.

Bottom line, the state can expect to collect $30.469 billion for 2011-13, which is up about $29 million from last June's forecast; it can expect to collect $32.649 billion for 2013-15, up about $22 million from that previous forecast. It can expect $35.5 billion in 2015-17, the first time forecasters have looked out that far.

The biggest risks — economic slow down in China, problems in the Eurozone and the federal government's willingness to consider across-the-board cuts — are all outside the state, Treasurer Jim McIntire said.

In recent years, some forecasts have been so bad that they prompted calls for special sessions of the Legislature and calls for deep cuts or new taxes. This time, legislators on the council were willing to wait until January, and the regularly scheduled session that will follow the election.

There's still a shortfall of about $1 billion the next Legislature will need to close, Lerch said. Or about $500 million if it uses up the reserve funds.

It's clear the economy isn't going to grow fast enough to provide revenue needed for things like education improvements being ordered by the state Supreme Court, Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle and the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee said.

But the Legislature can look at the next forecast, due out in November, and look for some adjustments through the end of June that would add to the reserves, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, the chairman of the council said.

Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, who was recently appointed to the Legislature and the council to fill vacancies, said the biggest problem with the economy is that Washington needs to become "a business-friendly state" to attract businesses and jobs.

"Many of the problems in the budget are self-inflicted," said Rossi, who chaired the Ways and Means Committee during his previous tenure. Medicaid will be a big drain in a few years because Democrats "have swallowed Obamacare hook, line and sinker."

Murray defended the current budget, which he helped author. All budget writers face the same problems and wrestle with the same tough choices, he added: "It's unfortunate this forum is degenerating into a campaign forum."

"Facts are stubborn things," replied Rossi.

"So is history," countered Murray.

New state budget pushed into the fray

OLYMPIA — In an effort to break a budget logjam, Senate Republicans and their three Democratic allies unveiled a new  spending plan Thursday morning that would spend more on public schools and state colleges.

It also offers more money for child care for working families and has no new taxes. But it does skip a $140 million payment to state pension systems in exchange for other changes to pension plans that would save money in the long run. 

Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, called it a "compromise approach" to the differences between the budget passed in a parliamentary takeover two weeks ago in the Senate and a significantly different plan passed by House Democrats on the last day of the regular session.

Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, said it was a better plan than the one he joined with Republicans to pass. "It's a budget that can bring the special session to a close."

Senate Democratic leaders, who only saw the proposal at the same time Republicans released it at a morning news conference, said it has "some very good movement," because it restores money for public schools and higher education that Republicans proposed cutting two weeks ago.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she was still concerned that the proposal cuts money for the Disability Lifeline, but "I feel great about the moves that were made on the spending side."

The public release of a new budget proposal, signaled movement over talks which have essentially been at a stalemate for two weeks. But potential roadblocks quickly surfaced.

Democrats said they still have concerns about skipping the $140 million pension payment, because the cost of that grows over time. Republicans acknowledge the long-term cost of that is about $400 million over 25 years, but they estimate the savings from ending early retirements for new state employees would be $2 billion over that period, and that money could be used to shore up the pension funds.

The Legislature has skipped or delayed pension payments in six times since 2001, in budgets written by Democrats and Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire had asked legislative leaders to come  up with a budget that doesn't skip the pension payment, which Republicans favor but Democrats oppose, and also doesn't delay a $330 million payment to schools by shifting it from the end of this biennium to the first day of the next. Democrats favor that approach but Republicans call it unsustainable budgeting.

The new budget proposal doesn't do that. It also calls for the state to spend $780,000 to set up 10 charter schools, while cutting $1.5 million Democrats proposed for "collaborative schools".  Charter schools, which can be set up by a public school and parents to try new methods and avoid some state requirements, would need new legislation to be passed along with the budget. Collaborative schools, a plan to pair the Education Departments of the state's colleges with troubled schools, has already passed.

Sen. Rodney Tom, another of the three Democrats who voted with Republicans on their Senate budget, is a strong supporter of charter schools. The budget would pay for 10 next year, in "persistently failing schools." But Gregoire and other Democrats regard charter schools as taking money from the existing schools; the governor proposed the collaborative school program as a way to bring innovation into classrooms without setting up charter schools.

Gregoire: Everybody has to give on budget

Gov. Chris Gregoire: "Not interested in a special session."

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire said she still has hopes the Legislature can reach a budget deal by midnight Thursday, the end of the current session, but conceded there is no deal at this point.

"I will fight to the end to get out of here on time," Gregoire told reporters Tuesday morning. "I'm not interested in a special session."

But if there's no compromise by the end of the day, that will be difficult, she said. And while there are things that she'll push for, she doesn't know what a workable compromise is yet: "I'll know it when I see it."

After House Democrats passed a budget solely with their members support, Senate Republicans got the support of three conservative Democrats in that chamber to use a parliamentary procedure Friday and pass a very different spending plan with more program cuts, no new taxes and fewer accounting shifts. The move caught Senate Democratic leadership by surprise.

Gregoire declined to speculate on how the majority  leadership miscounted the support for their budget, and said she, too, was surprised by some of the things that became a point of contention between the two caucuses. But Friday' night is "Over. Done. Through." and all sides have to work out the compromise.

She's also not interersted in a solution that has been suggested by some legislators: forget about a revised budget and give her extra flexibility to cut programs or agencies. Under current law, a governor can only make across the board cuts for all agencies to avoid a deficit.

Gregoire has asked for expanded authority to handle budget problems for several years, but that's not the solution for this budget problem, she said. "They have to pass a budget."

District 4 reps host meeting tonight

The District 4 state legislature representatives will host a public meeting tonight to discuss the budget cuts proposed by Governor Chris Gregoire. The meeting will be from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Spokane Valley Library, 12004 E. Main. Feel free to stop by and give your state legislators your opinion on the cuts.  

Legislative pay cut: Some say yes, some say no

OLYMPIA – About half of the 15 members of the Spokane-area legislative delegation have volunteered for the same level of pay cuts the imposed on state workers. That’s a level slightly better than legislators statewide.

Many who have done it, like Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, say it’s a personal decision.

“As a businessman, the buck starts and stops with me,” said Parker, who owns a chain of coffee shops. “It’s the same with us as legislators.”

Parker’s seatmate in Spokane’s 6th District, Republican John Ahern, said he doesn’t plan to ask for a pay cut, but he is donating 3 percent or more to charities, ranging from his church and the Boy Scouts to organizations that oppose abortion like Teen-Aid.

“This way I know exactly where the money is going,” Ahern said. If he took a pay cut, the money would stay in the state’s general fund, and go to state programs or agencies he doesn’t support….

To read the rest of this item, or for a list of the Spokane-area delegation's decisions on a voluntary pay cut, click here to go inside the blog

State economist: Risk of recession increasing

OLYMPIA — Washington's economic outlook for the current budget cycle has gone from cautiously optimistic to "a sinking feeling of pessimism," the state's chief economist said Thursday.

"The risk of the economy slipping back into recession has increased significantly," Arun Raha said in the latest economic and revenue update.

In June, Raha was confident that Washington and the rest of the United States would avoid a "double dip recession" and that growth would continue, although slowly.

Since then, debt problems have spread beyond in Europe, the U.S. government barely avoided a default on U.S. bonds but couldn't escape a downgrading by a major rating agency, and consumer confidence "is in the tank."

State job growth hasn't been as strong as projected, the single-family housing construction sector remains flat, banks and local governments have been laying off workers and about the only manufacturing sector growing is aerospace.

Oh, and by the way, state revenue collections are down about $9 million below forecast since June.

The next full revenue forecast is due in mid September. A significant drop in projected revenues could lead to a call by some legislators for a special session to make deeper cuts, sooner.
State agencies already were ordered to identify ways they could cut their budget by as much as 10 percent.

GSI site gives voters a way to contact legislators, voice support for the MAC

State voters and taxpayers who want Washington's legislators to keep funding the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) can find a quick link to an online letter form at the Greater Spokane Incorporated's YourPolicyVoice.org.

The letter is a quick form that allows people to support the MAC, which faces possible closure due to major cuts proposed by the governor's 2011-2013 biennial budget. The message there will be forwarded to legislators based on selections the letter-writer chooses in the online form.

The MAC is dependent on state funding, plus grants, private support, memberships and exhibit sponsors.

The museum houses the Inland Northwest’s largest art and history collections, exhibitions, and historical records. 

GSI's Yourpolicyvoice.org site gives citizens quick ways to contact elected officials on important policy decisions.

Should Liquor Stores Open Longer?

Item: Idaho Lawmakers Consider Changing Liquor Sales Rules/Tania Dall, KXLY

More Info: While many states including Idaho are struggling to balance their budgets, Idaho's state liquor division says keeping its doors open longer would mean an extra $2.2 Million in revenue annually. Idaho's state-run liquor stores have seen a 40-percent spike in sales in the last five years. Last fiscal year, it made $47 Million in profit. The state liquor division credits population growth and more choice from manufacturers for the monetary boom. (SR file photo: Brian Plonka)

Question: Should state-run liquor stores in Idaho be allowed to keep their doors open longer to increase tax revenue?

Gregoire: Time of essence on budget fix

Gov. Chris Gregoire says the budget gap is large, but the options for closing it are small, during a press conference Monday.

OLYMPIA — Warning that every month is critical in solving the state’s looming budget deficit, Gov. Chris Gregoire tried to prod legislators into suggesting their budget cuts for the rest of the fiscal year.

Gregoire said that three of the legislative leadership groups she’d ask for budget-cutting suggestions by today have asked for more time. She has no time table yet for deciding when or whether to call a special session to address a projected $385 million gap between state revenue and state expenses.

Last week, she proposed a series of cuts to state programs that are on the books, including the Basic Health Plan and Disability Lifeline. But many can’t be changed without at least 30 days of notice to recipients; it’s required by law, and it’s fair, she said.

“We’re taking away people’s livelihood,” she said. “We’re taking away people’s health care.”

Every dollar put off now means more money that has to be cut near the end of the budget cycle, Gregoire said. “For every inaction, there is going to have to be a counter action.”

State wants to reopen union contracts

OLYMPIA — Thursday’s worse than expected revenue forecast prompted Gov. Chris Gregoire to order state employee unions back to the bargaining table to renegotiate contracts.

With a proclamation, Gregoire invoked a state law that allows her to ask the unions to reopen existing contracts. A separate declaration by Office of Financial Management Director Marty Brown about the forecast for the 2011-13 biennium says the contracts reached for those years are also unfeasible and must be reopened.

Most of the major contracts for 2011-13 are still under negotiations, a spokeswoman for Gregoire said.

Gregoire had resisted declaring an emergency and trying to renegotiate the current contracts during the past session.

Gregoire to make special session decision next week

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire could decide by next week whether to call a special session to cut the state budget or apply across-the-board cuts of as much as 4 percent to many areas of the state’s general fund budget.

She’ll talk with the Democratic and Republican leaders of both legislative houses on Thursday, seeking a commitment that they would get in and out of a special session in two to three days and “make the decision before Congress goes on recess.”

“I want to know tomorrow where they are,” Gregoire said of Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Minority Leader Richard DeBolt. “I’ve had legislators saying don’t call uis back…They don’t think they can get it done.”

But Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the Senate Republican’s point man on budget matters, said Tuesday a special session would be much better than across the board cuts because it would allow the state to reduce the budget in a thoughtful way, get some long-term savings and create a reserve. The only reasons not to  have a special session, Zarelli said, are “political expediency” and “legislative incompetency.”

State law allows a special session to last 30 days, but Gregoire said she wants them to come to Olympia with a plan they can pass in two or three days, then adjourn. To do that, Democrats, who  hold large majorities in both houses, will need a consensus before they arrive, she said,

At the end of this year’s regular session, the supplemental budget was not finished and Gregoire called a special session, asking legislators to wrap it up in no more than seven days. They finished after midnight on the 30th day.

State law does not allow the governor to vary the cuts for different agencies, or single out some programs for elimination while sparing others from all cuts. “I think it’s a ridiculous tool,” Gregoire said.

She will urge the Legislature to change the law, but not in the special session. She will offer to give legislators a blueprint of budget cuts, asking Democratic leaders, “If I give you a proposed budget, could you come in and get it done?”

The state is facing a budget shortfall, in part because Congress has yet to approve extra money for Medicaid patients the states had been told early this year to expect. The anticipated $480 million was to be used as the state’s ending fund surplus, but no legislation with that money has made it through both chambers of Congress, and prospects are fading as members of Congress take heat for a ballooning federal deficit.

The state’s revenue projections also have dropped since the Legislature passed its supplemental budget in April. Without a special session, Gregoire can cut to eliminate the projected shortfall of more than $345 million to pay for existing programs and salaries, but can’t make cuts to leave additional money for a ending fund surplus.

Gregoire press conference about more than just Rossi

The political news out of the governor’s Tuesday morning press conference was all about a possible Dino Rossi v. Patty Murray matchup. While that filled the lunchtime blog post, there were other interesting items as well, which will be reported in Wednesday’s S-R. The “non-political junkie’s story, starts below, and continues inside the blog…Jim Camden

OLYMPIA – With the state facing a possible shortfall of $2 billion in the next budget cycle, the governor’s office will hold “town hall” meetings around the state on the budget this summer and early fall.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said Tuesday she’ll send out the head of the Office of Financial Management to explain the tight budget and give residents “a full appreciation of the trade offs” for potential cuts.
“I think there’s a misimpression out there, that there’s lots of money in Olympia,” Gregoire said during a press conference. The meetings will give residents a chance to weigh in on “what are we willing to cut or get rid of.”…

Vote for none of the above…

Good morning, Netizens…

Last night the Washington State House voted by a 51-47 majority to suspend I-960, the initiative that prohibits the state from raising additional taxes, thus clearing the road for Governor Gregoire’s hotly-contested tax increases on soda pop, cigarettes, bottled water, candy and gum.

Last week the Senate passed the same bill, thus clearing the way for Gregoire’s new taxes, all without the voters’ permission or so much as a how-dee-do. The voters approved I-960 so that the State of Washington could not add additional taxes without a majority vote of the full State House and Senate. One has only to ask what pork-barrel deals Governor Gregoire made with members of the House and Senate to get their approval on suspending I-960.

Now, all we as voters have to do is keep a tightly-focused vision of everyone who voted in favor of suspending I-960, a citizen’s Initiative passed into law. Remember that list of names and when the next election time rolls around, vote for none of the above. While you are at it, be certain to take out Christine Gregoire as Governor and Mary Verner as Spokane’s City Mayor for their collusion in approving the new taxes.

We are already living in very tough times economically. We don’t need more taxes to burden down our family budgets.


WA Lege Day 30: Democrats defend the changes

OLYMPIA—Some of the problems with the original bill suspending the supermajority required for tax increases have been removed, Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean any Republicans will vote for it, he said.

Democrats defended the suspension.

“This is a significant issue. We do not take lightly, changing or even suspending the will of the people,” Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said. The first amendment to I-601 was suspended by Sen. Bob Morton, a Republican. Republican Sens. Jim West and Dino Rossi also suspended initiatives, some of them by bigger margins than I-960, Hargrove said.

“It’s disengeniuous to suggest that one side of the aisle always upholds the will of the people and the other side does not,” he said.

The drop in the budget is worse than the drop in the early 1980s, when the state extended the sales tax onto food purchases, he added, and “I don’t intend to do that.”

“In all our districts we see homes foreclosed and businesses closed. It wasn’t state government that got us there. It was waste, fraud and greed on the part of corporate America,” Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle said.

Republicans talk about the big majorities in their districts that voted in favor of I-960, but his district voted heavily against it, Murray said. The state has a republican form of government that sends legislators to do the work of the government.

I-960 hearing: Roach “look at the vote” in 2007

OLYMPIA — Sen. Pam Roach warns that repealing I-960 will result in a higher percentage of voters supporting a new initiative to reinstate the two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes.

I-960 failed in the city of Seattle, Roach said, but it passed with big margins in other parts of the state.

I-960 hearing: Benton “strongly opposed

OLYMPIA — “What does the phrase will of the people mean to you,” Sen. Don Benton asked the Ways and Means Committee.

Of course Initiative 960 makes raising taxes more difficult, Benton said. But that’s what the people wanted. It also makes government more transparent.

“Too many of our citizens find the legislative process a mystery,” Benton said. “Too often legislators hear more from lobbyists than their constituents.”

THe voters did support the initiative, he said. “Why does public knowledge frighten so many here?”

Don’t throw out the rules for giving more information on the cost of legislation to the public.

WA Lege Day 25: Blogging Sen. Ways & Means hearing on I-960

OLYMPIA — The Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing on proposed changes to Initiative 960, the law that requires a two-thirds majority to pass a tax increase, is just starting.

Spin Control will attempt to blog the highlights. Thus far, it has mainly been milling about, with committee staffer Diane Criswell giving the standard report of bill highlights on SB 6843.

In the audience is initiative maestro Tim Eyman, Evergreen Freedom Foundation head Bob Williams.

Sen. Don Benton and Sen Pam Roach have been called for testimony.

State budget outlook: Getting less awful, slowly?

OLYMPIA – Good news for the state is the recession is pretty much over. Bad news is won’t seem like the recession is over until the middle of the next year.

That was the assessment Thursday Arun Raha, the state’s chief economist, gave the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

            The panel, as well as all other House and Senate committees, are gathering in Olympia this week to hear what’s happening with the bills they passed this year, and get a preview of what they’ll face next.

What they’ll face is a budget that’s more than $1.2 billion out of balance, even after eating up about $570 million the legislators thought they’d left last spring as an “ending fund balance.” That’s billion with a “b”, or as Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, put it: “Pretty soon you’re talking real money, right?”

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, in a separate interview, said she’s warned her caucus to expect another tough session with the budget – tougher than last year, because there probably won’t be several billion from the federal government in stimulus money. 

Meanwhile, in California…

The state budget picture is much, much worse. From the Financial Times:

Once the US’s richest state, California now has the dubious distinction of having the worst credit rating in the country….

California’s fiscal year ends on Wednesday but as the state’s cash reserves are empty, IOUs will be issued to a range of creditors, including contractors, such as information technology companies and the food service groups that cater for prisons.

ALSO: An unrelated tech note. We’ve had some reports of RSS feed problems, which we think we’v now got fixed. If you’re having problems, please shoot me an e-mail.

Over-warm lawmakers wrap up day-long meeting

The legislative task force looking for funding for state parks and ISP has wrapped up its meeting for the day and tentatively set its next meeting for Aug. 11; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, warned, “Right now it seems like the only solution is a tax increase, and I suspect that’s not going to pass in the House. So I would like to see us be more broad.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded, “It does have to pass both the House and the Senate. That’s partly why we’re into this pickle.” Among the agenda items for the next meeting: A report from the state Tax Commission. The panel will hold its next meeting at the Idaho Supreme Court’s basement meeting room - because today’s meeting quickly became a roast-fest in Boise’s 90-plus summer temperatures. The Capitol Annex meeting room has window air conditioners, but the units are too noisy to run during meetings, and were operated only during breaks. Additional meetings are likely to follow in September and October.

Parks warn of big impacts if gas taxes lost

If the Idaho State Parks & Recreation Department got no replacement for the gas tax money it’s now receiving for off-road recreation, it’d lay off 10 people and endanger programs that now result in grants to local government entities - $32 million over the last 20 years - and pay for everything from  snowmobile trail grooming to boat ramps to trails to fixing roads and bridges at state parks. Dave Ricks, acting state parks director, told a legislative task force today that tourism is Idaho’s third-largest industry, and brings $3 billion a year into the state’s rural economies. The loss of recreation funding would impact that, he said.  

ISP funding ideas: Raise taxes, fees

The Idaho State Police has some suggestions for how to make up the loss of roughly $20 million from its budget when gas tax funds the ISP now receives shift to highways in a year: Raise vehicle registration fees by $5, to generate $8 million; raise driver’s license fees by $5 to generate $1.7 million; place a surcharge on tires, batteries, vehicle and other transportation-related items, to generate up to $13 million; charge a half-percent fee on all new car sales to raise $10 million; raise transfer, new and out-of-state title fees by $5 to generate $2.7 million; and/or tap into the state’s general fund whenever other funding sources fall short. One catch: Some of those fees, including those for driver’s licenses and titles, already were increased by lawmakers this year.

ISP: ‘We would not be patrolling the highways’

If the Idaho State Police had to just absorb the funding cut when it loses gas tax funds a year from tomorrow, ISP would have to lay off 204 people, Lt. Col. Kevin Johnson just told a legislative task force. “On the patrol side we would have to cut 123 officers, that’s just troopers.” The remainder of the layoffs would be sergeants, lieutenants, captains and dispatch personnel. “That would leave us with a small amount of people to cover the county roads and federal and state highways,” he said. “It would not be enough, obviously, to patrol. … We would essentially not be patrolling the highways.” Currently, ISP patrols the roads with about 35 troopers per day, he said. “Mostly, we’re covering the highways right now from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m.”

ISP budget faces big hole

The hole that looms to be filled in the Idaho State Police budget is actually larger than some may think, a legislative panel heard this morning. The fiscal year 2010 budget gives the ISP $15.7 million from the state highway fund, which largely comes from gas taxes; that will go away on July 1, 2010. But Rep.  Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, noted, “We’ve gone down with both the parks and ISP budget the last two or three years. … Are we going to deal with what they’ve lost, or are we going to deal with what’s currently there today?” If the current gas tax funds are replaced for both agencies, he said, there’s “still a shortfall.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded, “An excellent question … I don’t know the answer to it. … The language in the resolution calls for us to replace the funds that were there, so that’s our first priority.”

Legislative budget analyst Dick Burns told the task force that the highway fund money available to ISP has fallen significantly short, prompting the Legislature to make up part of the shortfall from an ISP personnel fund and part from state general funds. “The revenues will not be there to support that,” Burns told the panel. In fiscal year 2009, he said, “We supplied over $3 million in general fund money to purchase cars and so forth. … To do it right may require in the area of $20 million to $21 million.” Cameron commented, “We see a little bit of the depths of the problem.”

‘Legislature chose to renege on the deal’

When the legislative task force ended up with time for some comments from the public this morning, off-road enthusiast Tom Crimmins of Hayden Lake was the first to step to the podium. “I recognize that you have a difficult task and challenge ahead of you - I wish you well,” he told the lawmakers. He said recreationists look forward to working with the lawmakers, but they’re none too happy. “Beginning in 1963, the recreational community agreed up-front … that giving out a bunch of $10 and $12 refunds cost the state more than it should,” he said. Those were refunds for gas tax paid on gas that never got burned on the roads, because it went into recreational, off-road use for boats, snowmobiles, dirt bikes or other off-road vehicles. So recreationists agreed to pay the tax, as long as the portion they paid was designated for trails. “Now it appears that the Legislature has chosen to renege on their part of the deal,” Crimmins told the panel. That puts recreationists in the position of either trying to get that decision reversed - his preference - or asking for their refunds back.

“I understand the Legislature’s reluctance to raise fuel taxes in this economic climate,” Crimmins told the task force. But if the task force is going to identify new funding sources, “It still appears to be a tax on somebody - it’s just a smaller target,” he said. Task force Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded, “Frankly, it wasn’t my idea to make the transfer the way it’s done.” But, he said, “The way I read the task force requirements, our job is not to find a funding source for transportation. … That ship has sailed. Our job is to sort of fill the hole that was created last year.”

Crimmins suggested perhaps tapping the sales taxes that are paid on boats and other off-road vehicles and their parts and accessories to replace the trails funding, but Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, noted that those sales tax proceeds now go to the state’s general fund - so the result would be tapping the general fund. “There’s already a shortfall,” he said. “I guess that’s the old adage of robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Crimmins said, “If the Legislature chooses not to increase taxes, which is what they did, and now they appoint a committee of eight folks to find a way to increase taxes on a smaller group of folks, that seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous.”

Crimmins was followed by four other off-road recreation enthusiasts. Sandra Mitchell of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association told the panel Idahoans treasure their recreational use of public lands, and it boosts not only their qualify of life but also the state’s economy. “They took away timber for the most part, they took away mining, but what they left was recreation,” the former staffer for then U.S. Sen. Steve Symms told the task force. Recreationists are proud, she said, that “we pay our own way,” in part through the gas tax. “We believe it is a fair and equitable use of fuel tax that’s burned off-road.” Karen Crosby of the Idaho Recreation Council warned that the funds now provide matching money for federal grants that have paid for recreational trails all over the state.

Recreationists: ‘We want our gas tax back!’

Recreationists were there in force at today’s legislative task force meeting, many wearing specially printed-up name tags that said in bright red above their names, “Hello,” and below their names, “I WANT MY GAS TAX BACK.” The Idaho Recreation Council printed them up, said Wendy Coome of the Back Country Horsemen, along with bumper stickers to match - and she promised there’ll be plenty of them seen around the state. Speaking on behalf of “the equine users of the back country,” Coome told the panel that several years ago, horse groups proposed legislation to impose a tax on horse trailers to fund equestrian trails. “We were shot down,” she said. “We were offering you a source of funding, and it never made it out of committee. Somebody might want to go back and look at that again.” She said the bill had an agricultural exemption, but the Idaho Farm Bureau and the Cattlemen’s Association opposed it anyway. “We had a majority of all the horse groups behind us,” she said.

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, said he’d like to take a look at that proposal right away.

Labrador: ‘I’m not sure what we’re doing here’

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, spoke out sharply after Sen. Dean Cameron’s opening remarks at a legislative task force meeting this morning, objecting to Cameron’s statements that the task force can’t simply shift funding for state parks and the Idaho State Police to the general fund when the agencies lose gas tax funding in a year. “I am troubled by your statements,” Labrador told Cameron. “It sounds like you’ve already decided what we’re going to do, so I’m not sure what we’re doing here.” Cameron said, “I apologize that you’re troubled,” but said he was relying on the wording of the legislation that created the panel. It instructs the panel to identify “dedicated” funding, which Cameron, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, noted is budgetary “vernacular” for money that doesn’t come from the state’s general fund.

“I’ll be the first to tell you that if we’re unsuccessful, that does put the pressure on the general fund,” Cameron told Labrador, adding that he sees it as the panel’s job to avoid that. “I have no preconceived notions as to where that alternative funding source should come from,” Cameron said. “You will hear a presentation from the state police on some ideas they have. … They haven’t been investigated fully yet.” Cameron said today’s meeting should “lay a foundation” for the panel’s deliberations. “Does that give you any further ease, representative?” he asked Labrador. “I will listen to the presentation,” Labrador responded.