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Eye on Boise: Idaho state agency budget requests come in far below normal; tax revenus come in far higher than expected

Oct. 18, 2020 Updated Tue., Oct. 20, 2020 at 4:38 p.m.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, elbow bumps James Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, on June 18 in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.  (Caroline Brehman)
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, elbow bumps James Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, on June 18 in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Caroline Brehman)
By Betsy Russell Idaho Press

BOISE – Lawmakers reviewed state agency budget requests at the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s fall interim meeting this past week, and so far, they’re coming in far below normal.

“We typically have about 400 new line item requests each year,” said Legislative Budget Director Paul Headlee. “And this year, there’s 113.”

All the proposed new line items together carry a net cost to the state general fund of $447,200. “Usually it’s over $100 million,” he said. “It’s really a maintenance budget.”

Most agencies have now submitted their requests, though some still could be modified. At this point, the requests come to a 2.8% increase in state general funds from this year’s budget; a decrease of 6.3% from dedicated funds; and an increase of 1.9% from federal funds; for a total percentage increase from all funds of 0.6%.

State tax revenues for the first three months of the fiscal year have come in far above projections, leading to a current estimated year-end surplus of $537.1 million if the trends hold. But the governor’s Division of Financial Management advised state agencies to exercise restraint in setting their budget requests for next year.

“I was very pleased with our agencies,” said Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, JFAC co-chair. “I appreciate them being cautious.”

The Legislature will receive the governor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 when it convenes in January, and set the budget during the legislative session that starts that month. The new fiscal year begins on July 1.

State rainy day fund hits record level

JFAC also received a report on the status of state budget reserve funds. The state’s main rainy-day fund, the Budget Stabilization Fund, had a balance of $423.4 million as of Oct. 5. That’s the highest the fund has hit since it was created in 1984.

Lawmakers this year raised the cap on the stabilization fund from 10% to 15% of the state’s general fund budget. It’s now at 10.5%.

Other state reserve funds include the Public Education Stabilization Fund, which is used to balance the public school budget each year when enrollment varies from projections. It has a current balance of $61.2 million, about the same as it held a year earlier, after transfers both in and out.

CARES Act allocations

JFAC members also heard a report from Alex Adams, Gov. Brad Little’s budget director, on CARES Act funds and allocations by the Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee, which Adams chairs and on which both JFAC co-chairs serve. Idaho received $1.25 billion. CFAC has allocated all but $133 million of that.

The allocations have included $318 million for small business support; $282 million for local government support; $220 million for education and safe reopening of schools; $192 million for state agency programs; $50 million for broadband infrastructure; $15 million for rental assistance; $15 million for the Lost Wages Assistance Program; and $2.6 million for food bank aid.

Youngblood said, “I’ve been very satisfied with the CFAC committee, the decisions that have been made and the fundings that have been made. I think they’ve been reasonable and thought-through.”

Joint budget committee members also met as an interim working group to hear a presentation on how other states deal with large, unanticipated infusions of federal funds midway through a budget year, like this year’s CARES Act funds. The panel made no decisions, but could consider changes in Idaho’s process during the 2021 legislative session.

Risch: COVID wasn’t created intentionally

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, says there’s nothing to the conspiracy theories that the COVID-19 virus was created intentionally.

“There’s a lot of conspiracy theories and what have you,” Risch said during the Idaho Debates on Idaho Public Television, a Q&A program that was broadcast statewide on Friday night, as to how the virus jumped from China’s bat population to humans.

When moderator Melissa Davlin asked Risch if he believes any of those conspiracy theories, he said, “You know, I don’t and I’ll tell you why. I sit on the Intelligence Committee. And although I can’t go into all the details, we on the Intelligence Committee deal with all kinds of threats to America, and that includes pandemic threats that from time to time have arisen but obviously haven’t done what this did.”

“When this happened, coming out of Wuhan, China, particularly when China had a lab right there in Wuhan, China, that was studying viruses, and the fact that this wet market was involved, we saw all these theories developed as to the conspiracies as to why this happened. I can tell you that there is no concrete evidence that this was done intentionally,” Risch said.

“It’s a wake-up call, obviously,” he said. “But no, I’m not bought onto any of those conspiracy theories at all.”

Risch is currently running for a third six-year term in the U.S. Senate, where he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He appeared on the Idaho Debates along with his Democratic challenger, Paulette Jordan, and independent candidate Natalie Fleming.

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