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Eye On Boise

JFAC agrees to Otter’s new wording in labor budget, while insisting no local offices close

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted this morning to pull back the budget bill for the state Department of Labor, and replace it with an identical one that has different wording in a section of legislative intent that bars the department from closing any of its local offices. The department had suggested that with falling federal funding, it might need to close various local offices in communities across the state. Lawmakers strongly objected.

Jani Revier, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, said Otter has several concerns about the intent language. One is a separation of powers concern. The other is that the wording might have required the department to re-fill 17 positions reduced through attrition since July 1, because it said, “The Department of Labor shall maintain the same number of local offices and provide the same or similar level of services as provided July 1, 2014.” She said the problem was with the “same or similar” phrase.

Revier said the governor’s proposed alternative wording “would keep offices open in each of the communities where they currently are.” But, she said, “The offices in some communities may change, the square footage may change, the number of people in some of the offices may change.”

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said he didn’t believe there was any separation of powers problem with lawmakers directing policy at a state agency. Revier said Labor has a $3.5 million shortfall in funding for next year, compared to its current operations. “They need to make some changes,” she said. “They need to adjust, in order to meet the decreasing revenues they’re seeing from the federal government.”

Labor officials told JFAC earlier that much of the activity at the department is counter-cyclical – meaning they’re busier when more people are unemployed and the economy is down, and less so when the economy turns up. That’s why the federal funding is fluctuating, they said. Revier said under the department’s plans, “Every office would have full-time employees there, and I think all of them would have more than one.”

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said, “The differences to me seem subtle.” He said, “There’s a lot of angst out there on how the new business model is going to affect the small communities.”

Jay Engstrom of the department told JFAC the department’s plan is to have a major office in each of the state’s six planning areas, one each in Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Twin Falls, Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene, and two in Boise. Other locations would be either smaller satellite offices or co-located offices that move in with other agencies or organizations to share costs. “There would still be computers there in those offices,” he said.

After lots of questions, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, moved to reopen the Department of Labor budget, but Schmidt objected. “I believe this is actually a significant policy change that the department is pursuing that will affect my district, and I’m going to oppose this,” he said. But only Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, joined Schmidt in opposing the move. JFAC then voted unanimously in favor of changing the intent language to match the governor’s wording.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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