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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: After legislative drafting error, governor declined to transfer $27.5 million to road projects

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter delivers his State of the State address inside the house chambers at the state Capitol building, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger) ORG XMIT: IDOK101 (Otto Kitsinger / AP)
Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter delivers his State of the State address inside the house chambers at the state Capitol building, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger) ORG XMIT: IDOK101 (Otto Kitsinger / AP)

When lawmakers started delving into the budget proposal that Gov. Butch Otter has made for next year, they got a surprise: Though they passed a bill last year to split a $55 million year-end surplus between the state’s rainy-day fund and roadwork, only the rainy-day fund transfer was made.

Due to a drafting error in the bill, Senate Bill 1206, the transfer to the Idaho Transportation Department’s Strategic Initiatives Fund didn’t happen, and Otter didn’t include it in his budget plan.

“Transferring the $27.5 million to the strategic initiatives fund will require legislative action,” Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Please note that this transfer is not reflected in any of the numbers that I have presented to you today, so it would reduce the current bottom line.”

That means if JFAC wants to complete the transfer that lawmakers approved last year, it’s starting out $27.5 million behind compared with the governor’s budget.

Under questioning from both co-chairs of JFAC, Sen. Shawn Keough and Rep. Maxine Bell, Revier had this explanation for why Otter didn’t include the transfer in his budget: He doesn’t like the idea.

“The governor does not support general fund for roads,” Revier told JFAC. “He has had a long-standing position on this. He is not going to recommend a general fund transfer.” That doesn’t stop lawmakers from making it, but they’ll have to come up with the money.

“There was a drafting error, we acknowledge there was a drafting error, but the transfer did not occur,” Revier said. “He did not recommend a transfer,” but he did make a note about it: that the transfer would be necessary if lawmakers want to spend the money on roads.

Bell said, “We made the transfer but didn’t put the spending in. We, I assume, will put the spending – I think the roads are still full of potholes.”

Keough was taken aback, asking Revier, “It doesn’t show up anywhere in the governor’s budget. So that we will, should we choose to uphold the law, we will have to account for that and take it off the bottom line – is that what I thought I heard you say?” Revier said yes.

But the Otter administration later noted that it did follow the law – the drafting error is the law that passed, and it didn’t include the transfer.

A day later, Keough said after further review, she’d concluded that the governor was following the law, and she shouldn’t have used that wording. “They – the governor and (the state Division of Financial Management) – did follow the law as it was passed, and we, the Legislature, made a costly bill-drafting error,” Keough said. “As I have reread SB 1206 and found the drafting error, I would like to retract my use of ‘follow the law’ and apologize for my mischaracterization.”

The governor’s budget shows a $155.9 million year-end balance – a surplus – at the end of the current budget year, 2018, and then transfers that over as the starting balance for fiscal year 2019. Then, his budget for fiscal year 2019 projects a year-end balance of $70 million. But Bell noted that with the $27.5 million transfer issue, “That’ll be a little bit of a different number.”

Strong support for pre-K

More than three-quarters of Idahoans want the state to start funding preschool, according to a new statewide poll. Seventy-six percent of voters and 80 percent of parents of children 5 and younger support state funding for pre-K, according to the poll unveiled last week by the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.

Idaho is among only a half-dozen states that do not fund pre-K, and the idea has run into stiff resistance at the Statehouse. But Idaho AEYC Executive Director Beth Oppenheimer says she hopes the new data will make pre-K into a “safe issue” for lawmakers.

“This has been a missing piece in the whole conversation,” Oppenheimer said. “We didn’t really know what Idahoans all across the state think.”

Erik Iverson, president and CEO of Moore Information, which has been doing public opinion research in Idaho for nearly 30 years, said, “There’s passion about it, too – people feel very strongly about it.” Among the 76 percent of voters who support state funding, 53 percent said they “strongly support” it, he reported, a remarkably high figure for such polling. “They think the state should be doing more, and they strongly support state investment in early childhood education in the state of Idaho,” Iverson said.

The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent, interviewed a representative sample of 406 registered Idaho voters from April 27 to May 2, plus an additional group of 103 Idaho parents of children ages 5 and younger.

The poll also turned up worries about the quality and affordability of preschool in Idaho; strong support for the idea that kids need preschool to be prepared for kindergarten; and found that 76 percent of the parents surveyed would utilize public preschool.

“Today, nearly half of Idaho’s children enter kindergarten without the foundational skills they need to be successful on Day 1,” Oppenheimer said.

Bill targets prostitution

In an effort to combat human trafficking, House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, says he’ll introduce legislation making a first-time offense of soliciting prostitution a felony. Currently, that’s a misdemeanor in Idaho until the third offense.

“There are individuals that are being trafficked here in the Treasure Valley,” Crane said. “Most of these are vulnerable children and women.”

Crane joined with representatives of advocacy groups and law enforcement in a Statehouse news conference to announce the proposed legislation and also laud Gov. Butch Otter’s recent proclamation of January as Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Several advocates said the key is to stop the customers of prostitution, to erase the demand that drives sex trafficking.

“You have got to stop the individuals that are trying to procure these services,” Crane said, noting that a national organization that opposes human trafficking has given Idaho’s current laws on the topic a “C” grade.

Crane said he’s also working on a second piece of legislation that would allow prosecution for human trafficking when the trafficker has only a single victim.

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