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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Flat-line budget may be hazardous to health districts

Betsy Z. Russell The Spokesman-Review

Idaho’s public health districts are asking for just a “maintenance” budget from the state next year, which would mean a second year in a row of no increase in state funding.

Jeanne Bock, director of the Panhandle Health District, said, “We’re concerned.” But, she said, “we think that we can do our part. We have other funding sources.”

Panhandle Health has substantially increased the fees it charges, for example, to subdivision developers for septic permits to help cover its costs. The state’s health districts get about 19 percent of their ongoing funding from the state. The rest comes from counties, federal contracts and fees.

Tight state budgets forced the state Health and Welfare Department to close its state branch labs in Coeur d’Alene and Pocatello, which means Panhandle Health now has to package up and FedEx its samples that need testing for communicable diseases to Boise.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, expressed concern that if there’s a disease outbreak, like the whooping cough outbreak a few years back, “we may not be prepared” to do the needed testing.

Bock told the joint legislative budget committee she shares that concern. “So far, we’ve worked together,” she said. “The future I can’t predict.”

Not what she said

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, had questions when legislative budget writers were reviewing budget requests from public health districts. Among them: Why, when employees retire, they get credit only for half of their unused sick leave, rather than all of it. Some people, he said, will “take a sick day just to take a day off. … Seems like you’re penalizing the person that’s really working hard and loyal to the company, and the other ones are getting rewarded for it.”

House Appropriations Chairman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, responded, “They’re following, probably, the state guidelines?”

That was the answer. Carol Moehrle, 2nd District Health director, responded that when employees retire, they can convert half of their unused sick leave into health benefits.

“They don’t get paid out,” she explained. “It’s the same for all state employees.”

Harwood said, “Then what you’re saying is we need to change that, huh?”

“No, she didn’t say that,” Bell said to laughter.

Another Mr. Rogers

The Legislature’s joint budget committee spent much of Wednesday morning questioning David Rogers, Medicaid division administrator, about Medicaid, the fastest-growing portion of the state budget. But after many had addressed Rogers as “Mr. Rogers,” Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said she just couldn’t call him that – it reminded her too much of the Mister Rogers her kids watched on TV when they were growing up. “You’ve done a good job making presentations to us as he did to them every morning,” she said.

Rogers responded, “I had considered wearing my sweater and tennis shoes tomorrow when I present, but …”

Not the conventional wisdom

Legislative budget writers usually talk about saving money by privatizing government services, but Tuesday, the Department of Health and Welfare told them they could save millions by doing the opposite – “in-sourcing” a bunch of information technology workers who now are outside contractors.

“The state can save approximately $3 million in total funds over the next 2½ years,” Dave Butler, deputy director of management services for the department, told the Joint Finance- Appropriations Committee. “We feel we can provide better service to the public as well as the divisions that we serve.”

Butler, who just joined the state a year ago after a career at Albertsons, said that when the state contracted out the work, it was a boom time for the high-tech business. Since then, there’s been the dot-com bust, and a flood of information-technology professionals entered the market. Demand, and wages, have dropped.

Butler said when he broached the idea to lawmakers, they asked him “why I want to increase the size of government.” As a private-sector guy, he said, he’s learning that many judge the size of government by the number of employees. But if a higher employee count means less spending of taxpayer money, he said, “then I think it’s a benefit to each and every one of us.”

Lawmakers were leery.

“You go against every magazine I get that says privatization of government services is the only way to go out there,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chairwoman.

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