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News >  Idaho

Idaho drug treatment funds spark clash

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – State lawmakers restored funds Monday that Gov. Butch Otter wanted to trim from substance abuse treatment services next year, prompting a sharp reaction from the administration, which accused them of valuing drug users above state employees.

Otter had made average 5 percent merit raises for state employees next year his top budget priority, but lawmakers trimmed that back to 3 percent and have been trimming many of the governor’s budget proposals for next year.

“Is their priority state employees? No, it’s drug users, that’s their priority,” said Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget director. “All the money they’ve saved so far in the general fund, they’ve just spent.”

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, on a unanimous vote, on Monday shifted savings around, restored a federal grant, and added $10.5 million in one-time funds to the state Office of Drug Policy to bring statewide substance abuse treatment services for next year back up to this year’s level – rather than slashing them as Otter had recommended in his budget. Otter, speaking to reporters two hours later, said, “I think it’s a terrible mistake.”

State Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, said the joint committee tried to “meet the governor halfway” on substance abuse funding. “The governor vocalized some concerns that we don’t have the data yet” about whether treatment programs are working, she said. “It’s a Catch-22, because if you remove the effort, then the data’s going to look bad. This maintains the current effort. We’ll look at some data.”

The one-time funding means lawmakers still will have to debate the issue and determine again next year whether to provide the money, Henbest said.

One-time funds like the $10.5 million that JFAC spent typically couldn’t be spent for items like state employee raises or adding new workers, because those are ongoing expenses. But Hammon noted that the Legislature shifted a big chunk of the state’s revenue forecast from ongoing to one-time, rather than accept the governor’s economists’ evaluation of how much of each type of funding the state should expect.

“Yes, we need to do something about drug treatment, but this is a lot of money,” he said. Hammon said by his calculations, budget writers have trimmed about $10.7 million from the governor’s budget recommendation in their budget-setting so far. But now, he said, “They’ve just spent it.”

Otter wanted millions to go to 5 percent average raises for state employees and for other proposals, like adding forensics staffers to the state police crime lab, which lawmakers cut.

State Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice chairwoman of the joint budget committee, said, “We’re working very hard to try to take care of what we see as priorities, and continuance of the substance abuse efforts and gains we’ve made over the last two years is at the top of the priority list for most every legislator.”

Keough said, “We’re going to agree to a large degree with the governor on a lot of things, but there’s also a divergence, and that’s the way the system is set up.”

JFAC members noted that overall, the budget set Monday keeps statewide spending on substance abuse treatment at $27.4 million, and $25 million of that goes to the criminal justice population, including those in prisons – only about $2 million goes to community-based treatment.

“We’ve always under-funded community treatment, forever,” Henbest said.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said of Otter, “He’s got his priorities. We’re trying our best to meet the reality.”

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