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Otter says he’ll continue low-balling state budget

BOISE - Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is promising more of the same from his administration: tight budgeting that may underestimate state revenues, forcing budget cuts that later prove unnecessary, to avoid mid-year holdbacks.

That approach attracted criticism this year after Otter and state lawmakers discounted economic forecasts and set the state budget tens of millions of dollars lower than estimated revenues, then ended the fiscal year June 30 with a fat surplus, most of which was doled back out to make up budget cuts to schools.

“You can expect the same thing the remainder of my time in office,” Otter declared last week in a talk at a luncheon sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and attended by more than 400 people.

“The future budgets that we’ll have in the state are going to not look an awful lot unlike budgets that we’ve had the last three and a half years,” Otter said. “We’re still going to be conservative. We’re still going to work at institutionalizing a lot of the changes that we made during this economic downturn.”

Otter noted that his first general-fund budget as governor in 2007 totaled about $3.2 billion, while the budget last year was just a little over $2.2 billion. He hinted that the cuts should be permanent – even as the economy recovers.

“We’re not going to grow back at the same rate as the economy grows,” he said.

Instead, the governor said, he’ll work with all state agencies to “institutionalize” the past three years’ budget cuts, “so that everybody up and down – the field people, the people working in the office – everybody up and down the employee levels in the state of Idaho understands that this is a new way of doing business in Idaho government.”

Looking ahead, he said he hopes to announce in his “state of the state” address in January that “this will be the first year that I haven’t already alerted every director for a holdback.”

Mid-year budget holdbacks, which come when revenues fall short after the budget’s already been set, are “dysfunctional to the entire organization,” Otter said. “I find it better to … underestimate a little bit in order to make sure when we tell an agency or we tell a program that they have the money, that they can count on that money and they can plan around that money.”

Ferguson’s back

A new nonpartisan fiscal policy center is being launched in Idaho, with Mike Ferguson, former longtime state chief economist, chosen to head it. The Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy is funded by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation.

“The whole idea behind the center is to provide an independent, nonpartisan, unbiased source of factual information and analysis relating to Idaho’s fiscal policies,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson will be the new center’s full-time, year-round director. He retired after more than 25 years with the state, and served as chief economist for six Idaho governors from both parties. “I am really excited about this opportunity,” Ferguson said. “I look forward to helping the public and Idaho’s elected decision-makers by providing helpful and easy-to-understand information that hasn’t been readily available before.”

Commissioners clash

Idaho’s three GOP redistricting commissioners have sent out an op-ed piece accusing their Democratic counterparts of “raw partisanship” and a “hardball, union-style negotiating tactic.” It gives something of an impression that the moves toward compromise between the two sides in their past meetings have evaporated.

However, Commissioner Lou Esposito, spokesman for the GOP commissioners, said the guest opinion is referring only to the drawing of congressional districts, not to the drawing of new legislative districts. In their latest public discussion, the Republicans agreed to use the Democrats’ proposed legislative map as a starting point for changes, and some movement toward compromise appeared afoot.

The GOP commissioners plan to distribute a second op-ed piece about legislative redistricting early next week, Esposito said.

The commission reconvenes on Tuesday; its deadline is 5 p.m. on Sept. 6.

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