BOISE – Legislative Democrats are faulting Gov. Butch Otter’s priorities, saying he shouldn’t be cutting education and other essential state services while leaving hundreds of millions in state rainy-day funds.
“Our tax dollars created these rainy-day funds; they’re there for a purpose,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “We’re well beyond raining – in fact we need a new ark.”
Democrats, the minority party in both the House and Senate, gathered this week to respond to Otter’s State of the State and budget message. They praised some of Otter’s proposals, including his zero-based budgeting initiative, his plan to revamp the role of the state Board of Education to limit it to policy-setting, and his push for more efficiency at the Idaho Transportation Department.
“In his remarks, Gov. Otter offered a glimpse into the same sort of post-partisan future we are seeing take shape in Washington, D.C., and the wisdom of meeting in the middle whenever we can,” said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise.
“But we also saw many misplaced priorities, and missed opportunities, in what the governor had to say yesterday, and in the policies we’ve seen take hold so far during this budget crisis.” She asked, “Is it smart to ask Idahoans to pay more for road maintenance while cutting school resources, the best engine we have for our future economic security?”
Otter has called for spending just 35 percent of the state’s $390 million in rainy-day funds to get through both the current year and fiscal year 2010, which starts July 1.
Though he proposed offsetting cuts to public schools in the current year from the rainy-day funds, he wouldn’t dip into them for schools in the new year. Instead, he’s calling for an unprecedented 5.3 percent cut in funding for public schools next year.
“All we’re suggesting is that the cuts be less significant, they should not go to the bone,” said House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello.
Siddoway gets JFAC seat
The Senate has finished its reshuffling of committee assignments now that Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, has moved into leadership (majority caucus chair), and Fulcher’s former seat on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has gone to Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton. That brings the Treasure Valley area down to three members on the 20-member panel, which writes state budgets. North Idaho has six – Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, and Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls; and Reps. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow; George Eskridge, R-Dover; and Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls.
Siddoway’s former seat on the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee went to Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, which previously had no members from the Panhandle.
Meanwhile, Fulcher joined Senate State Affairs; new Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, who moved over from the House, is joining the Senate Resources and Health and Welfare committees along with his JFAC seat; Jorgenson is joining the Commerce and Human Resources Committee; and new Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, replaces Siddoway as vice chairman of the Agriculture Committee. Also, new Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, another former House member, replaces Fulcher as vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Union faults neglect of worker pay
The Idaho Association of Government Employees, which represents hundreds of state workers, is upset that Otter didn’t talk about state employees in his annual State of the State message – though state worker pay has been a major theme for him in past years.
“State workers may have noticed that the governor made not a single mention of state employees – not a single word of encouragement, let alone thanks, for their hard work,” the union said in a press release it sent out this week. Andrew Hanhardt, union president, said, “The governor is not showing compassion to those he leads.” The union said if salary savings are needed, the state should target its highest-paid employees. Union members will be talking with lawmakers on Monday.
The revenue news
The governor’s Division of Financial Management is forecasting that state tax revenues for the current year, fiscal year 2009, will come in 9.5 percent down from the previous year. Then, from that lowered level, the division is predicting a 1 percent growth in revenue the next year. The result is a revenue forecast for next year that’s 8.5 percent below what was originally expected to come in this year – that’s the basis on which Otter built his budget.
Wayne Hammon, division chief, said he’s often asked how accurate the forecasts are, which are made by longtime state chief economist Mike Ferguson. Hammon said on average, in all the years Ferguson’s been making the predictions, they’ve come in within just over 3 percent of the actual numbers.
Another definition of ‘compassion’
Otter told lawmakers, “I know that you share my administration’s goals of promoting responsible government, enhancing economic opportunity, and empowering Idahoans. I know that you are as devoted as I am to advancing those goals decisively, with certainty, but also with compassion.” Then he added, “And speaking of compassion, I also think it’s worth noting that the more quickly you do the people’s business, the more of their money you save.” Lawmakers, who clearly got the hint – it cost more than $35,000 for each day the Legislature remains in session – strongly applauded.
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