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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Idaho lawmakers wrap up state agency budget-setting, focus on education

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, sites next to Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the joint budget committee, at a House Ways and Means Committee meeting on Friday. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)
Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, sites next to Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the joint budget committee, at a House Ways and Means Committee meeting on Friday. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

The Legislature’s joint budget committee finished setting state agency budgets on Friday, appropriating more than $3.4 billion for next year, a 5.4 percent increase from this year’s budget.

The numbers aren’t final, as a number of “trailer” appropriation bills still will need to be passed in committee to reflect the fiscal impact of various pieces of legislation that still are working their way through one house or another. (Those funding bills are so named because they “trail” behind the bills that prompt them.) But the timing puts the Legislature on track for its hoped-for March 24 adjournment date.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said, “Overall, I think the budget committee worked really hard at it, going through the numbers with a fine-toothed comb and recognizing that we still have holes in places after the recession, and I think we methodically took a look at those and tried to plug those back in when it was needed.”

Keough said the budget “recognizes the value in K-12 education and higher education, and a continued emphasis on career-technical education, all of which will provide Idahoans that choose to stay in the state with some good-paying jobs, and that’s a good thing for all of us.”

JFAC members spoke out in praise of Keough and her co-chair, longtime Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, whom Sen. Fred Martin called the “queen” of the Legislature, praising her long service. She returned the praise to the members of the 20-member joint committee.

“I tell everybody it’s the best committee I’ve worked with, and I have a long memory,” Bell said. “We had some real yo-yos.”

ITD budget set

The budget that JFAC set for the Idaho Transportation Department on Friday closely matched the governor’s recommendation, with the exception of a half-million-dollar item on new cloud-based security software. Budget writers want ITD to hold off on that until the department can consult with the state’s newly created director of information security in the governor’s office. Overall, the $667 million budget, which includes no state general funds, 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 that stretched into the night Thursday and continued early Friday 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 that morale was down at ITD in 2013, as the new director eliminated about 155 positions and the agency went through a major reorganization. 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, and performance indicators are up. “He’s brought morale off the charts, and that team works in a positive, motivated environment.”

ITD officials agreed to meet with JFAC over the interim to provide more information about the positions and how the program is working.

Keough said of Dixon, “His heart was in the right place – he wanted to put more money on the roads.” She 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,” Keough said.

Expanding Open Meeting Law

The House Ways and Means Committee has voted unanimously to introduce legislation proposed by Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, to bring councils, boards and commissions created by executive order under the Idaho Open Meeting Law. The proposal, he said, “is a very simple one, although the reaction to it has been quite interesting.”

He said when he tells people what the bill does, their response typically is, “You mean they’re not?”

“And they are not,” Loertscher said. “Apparently they’re not required to comply with the Open Meeting Law. So that’s all this does.”

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, moved to introduce the bill, and the motion passed unanimously.

House humor

and glue stick

As the House was wrapping up its floor session on Friday, several members asked for a privilege to speak, introducing family members or constituents in the House gallery.

Then Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, rose and asked for a privilege. “Just for an announcement,” she said. “I just want to remind everyone that Sunday is daylight savings time. You will lose an hour of sleep. And apparently, the Monday following daylight saving time there’s a higher percentage of heart attacks and strokes by 25 percent due to the lack of that hour’s sleep. So what I’d like to request of the good body is that maybe Monday, we can try to tone back on any tax increases, big government, fee raises, anything that wouldn’t be growing freedom, maybe we can back off on that on Monday for the good of the body.”

“And also, not in fun, just awareness to heart attacks and strokes, and know the symptoms,” she said. “Thank you.”

Several more announcements followed, some serious, some tongue-in-cheek – one of those, from Rep. John VanderWoude, R-Nampa, referring to Scott’s announcement and others referring to a story House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane had told the House earlier about a question his daughter asked him when he was coaching her in basketball.

After the final quip, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, drew the biggest laugh, when he commented, “I was sent a text that said we would be better off if more people used glue stick instead of ChapStick.”

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