(Note: This is part 2 of a five-installment interview with Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives.)
Sometimes, it’s all about the money.
So says House Speaker Lawerence Denney about the upcoming legislative session, who believes the budget will define the 2012 legislative session.
The speaker also said the Occupy Boise protest group camped across the street from the Capitol will have no effect on the session.
Some extra money – maybe
The speaker said that lawmakers may not be too eager to restore budget cuts made in prior years and that low-balling the state budget, a practice that’s taken some fire in recent years from political opponents, is the correct approach on fiscal matters.
“I think everything is tied to money,” Denney explained, adding that the budget picture is brighter than the past, but not as rosy as some would make it out to be. “I think even though we will probably get through this session without having to cut further, I don’t think there’s going to be any restoration of cuts we’ve already made.”
That goes against a promise made by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter in which he said education money would be restored when the state gets the chance.
Cathy Holland-Smith, the state’s lead budget official, told lawmakers last month that the expected surplus for fiscal year 2012 could run as high $130 million, though there are pressing needs that will cut into that amount. Extra funding requests for fiscal year 2012 will likely mean $50 million less from that surplus projection, meaning lawmakers could have as much as $80 million extra when budgeting time arrives.
Some legislators have expressed support for restoring cuts made to Medicaid and public education, while others say the Legislature should bolster rainy day funds drained as a result of the recession.
Even if there is extra money in the budget, Denney says lawmakers will be skeptical to spend more than is necessary to avoid more cuts should state revenue decline again.
“It’s easier to keep it where it is than to increase it and have to cut again,” Denney said, referring to program funding levels. “The decisions we have made in the past three years have been very difficult.”
With the projected 2012 surplus has come a number of critics who feel lawmakers low-balled or conservatively estimated the state budget last year. The critics say that if legislators had budgeted correctly, the $35 million in cuts to Medicaid wouldn’t have happened.
Denney approves of the conservative estimates because it’s the safest option for fiscal issues. “I think the last three years have proven us right,” Denney said, adding that going with the higher budget number offered by the state’s forecaster might have led to a worse budget situation.
“I think we have done the right thing in being conservative and even if we low-balled, it’s a good thing we did,” Denney concluded.
Across the street
Following the creation of the Occupy Wall Street group in New York City, several mirror protests started in cities across the country. Boise’s group is camped out across 6th Street from the Idaho Capitol and in plain view from Denney’s third-story House office.
No matter, the speaker says. He believes the group will have no influence on the legislative process this year. “My take is that, no, they won’t have any impact on the next session,” Denney said, adding that he’s had no interaction with Occupy Boise members.
The group is barred from camping on city property, but worked out a deal with the Idaho Department of Administration to set up its digs at the old Ada County Courthouse, which is being renovated to become theUniversityofIdaho’s newTreasureValleylaw school.
Denney appreciates the group is being politically active, but wonders if the encampment really qualifies as free speech. “I think the Occupy thing does take the freedom of speech to a step further than what I think freedom of speech actually is,” Denney said. “I think they have every right to make their point and to be heard, but to come and camp out on state land and actually perhaps even kill the grass on the lawn over here, I think that takes free speech a step further than what it actually goes.”
Occupy Boise members haven’t publicly stated how they might try to affect legislation in the coming session.
(Coming Thursday: Denney discusses his 2012 re-election plans and the announcement by Gov. Butch Otter that he plans to seek a third term in 2014. Video for the series by Mitch Coffman, IdahoReporter.com.)