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Saturday, January 18, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Boise

ITD budget set; Rep. Dixon backs off on plan to cut $7M from personnel

The Legislature’s joint budget committee set a budget for the Idaho Transportation Department this morning that’s $585,100 less than the governor’s recommendation, because JFAC wants ITD to hold off on new cloud- based security software until it can consult with the state’s newly created director of information security in the governor’s office; otherwise, the $666.7 million budget, which includes no state general funds, is identical to the governor’s recommendation. It reflects a 1.5 percent increase from this year.

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, had worked up a plan to cut $7.1 million in personnel funding from ITD and shift it to contract construction for road work, but after last-minute meetings including late last night and early this morning, he decided against the move, instead just trimming authorization for 30 unfilled positions from the department, but leaving funding intact.

Dixon, a new member of JFAC, said once he learned more about how ITD Director Brian Ness has cut positions and tapped personnel funds for his “horizontal career path” program – while also devoting any unspent personnel money to road work – “it made some sense.” He said, “I’m happy with it. I’m still learning the process, as far as the depth of that budget.”

Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, JFAC’s House vice-chair, who worked with Dixon and Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, on the budget, said he had the same concern when he first started working on the ITD budget in 2013, when the department had 88 unfilled full-time-equivalent positions. That’s now grown to 130, he said, but $14 million was reverted from personnel funds back to road work in the past year. “The team’s motivated, they continue to work hard,” Youngblood said. “That money, when it’s not used, is going down to the roads.”

Youngblood told JFAC, “In 2013, when I visited with the director and his management team, morale was down at ITD with his employees, because the director had come in and said, ‘I’m going to start a new program, we’re going to motivate my employees.’ He eliminated about 155 positions, which was huge for our state, and he was reorganizing his whole team.”

It worked, Youngblood said. Some of the funding from those positions has provided incentives and advancement for employees who are doing their jobs well and improving how the department works. “He’s brought morale off the charts, and that team works in a positive, motivated environment.”

JFAC members and Ness agreed to meet during the interim to track how the new program is working and how it relates to FTP numbers and funding. “They’re very open about all of us working together, and we’ll discuss that,” Younbglood said. “It’s fun when you get 10 new members in JFAC,” he said with a smile, adding, “I think we’re doing a great job.”

JFAC Co-Chair Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said of Dixon, “His heart was in the right place – he wanted to put more money on the roads.” She said, “When you look at a budget, whether it’s this one or any one, and you have a huge number of FTP’s that are going unfilled, the logical question is, well, if they’re empty, they must not need it. … What we saw happen this morning was a function of miscommunication and timing.”

But, she said, “The positive thing is all of us appreciate the leadership the director has brought to the department. Morale is up – employees are offering suggestions for how to do their jobs better. … We are appreciative. We just needed a little more communication ahead of time.”

Keough said the continuing talks through the interim might even suggest a better way for JFAC to account for and track personnel funds in departments like ITD. “We don’t want to disincentivize what’s going on with this kind of leadership,” she said.

As Dixon made the successful motion to leave the funding intact but cut authorization for 30 FTP, he said, “I want to express appreciation for the director and his staff and the wonderful work that they’re doing.” He said it represents a vision “rarely seen in government.”

The budget was approved on a unanimous, 19-0 vote. It still needs passage in the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they’re set by the joint committee.

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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