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Don’t be fooled by budget tricks — the fight is about spending

Don’t be fooled by budget tricks — the fight is about spending

Fred Birnbaum
February 4, 2024
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February 4, 2024

Kabuki Theater is an art form featuring distractions and illusions. In political terms, Kabuki describes acts of insincerity to please supporters, attract attention, and distract viewers from what is really going on. That’s what happened last Friday in the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee (JFAC). A combination of 12 liberal Republicans and Democrats partnered to undermine the maintenance budget process, as described in an earlier article

What exactly was being undermined? The new budget process to contain runaway spending growth and bloated budgets. In the last four years, the old system allowed big budgets to be steamrolled through JFAC, and appropriations increased by 54%! The new system was intended to separate votes on minimum spending needs (maintenance budgets) from votes on massive spending increases (line item budgets).  

The budget committee vote on February 2nd to go back to the old budgeting methodology was the result of the collusion of 12 out of the 20 members of JFAC, plain and simple. They created a narrative that the maintenance budget motions passed back on January 16 were somehow not true maintenance budgets.


When we review Idaho code 67-3514, we see that there are no requirements for how JFAC sets maintenance budgets. Nor is there any guidance in the code section specifically titled, FORMAT AND PREPARATION OF ANNUAL BUDGET REQUESTS 67-3502.

When you review the glossary of the Legislative Budget Book, page 7-3, it describes the maintenance budget as:

Maintenance of Current Operations Budget or Maintenance Budget or Program Maintenance 

The level of funding necessary to maintain the same level of service or activity for the coming fiscal year as was provided for in the current fiscal year.

The bottom line is that there is nothing in the following maintenance budget bills: H457 through H460 and S1266 through S1270 that doesn’t conform to any of the above definitions. 

The JFAC Co-Chairs Senator Grow and Representative Horman constructed maintenance budgets that not only conform to the notion of maintenance budgets as traditionally viewed but add some important refinements. For example, replacement items were often viewed as part of maintenance budgets. 

But when we review fiscal year 2025 (FY25), the agency replacement item request is $182 million versus the governor’s request of $172 million. The JFAC co-chairs wisely understood that automatically accepting the entire replacement item request as maintenance items would shield them from appropriate scrutiny, which was needed given the difference of opinion between the agency’s view and the governor’s. Likewise with the category of non-discretionary or statutorily prescribed spending. This category can change simply with changes in the federal-state apportionment of Medicaid dollars. And it is worth waiting until policy bills are acted on to settle this line item.

The debate over the definition of maintenance spending is Kabuki Theatre, with the goal of distracting other Republican legislators from the fact that all of the Democrats joined with a handful of Republicans on JFAC to thwart the budget process reform. The reform had the simple goal of providing more accountability and transparency to the state budget process. It would eliminate some of the waste, abuse, and fraud we have seen in agency budgets and spending. 

But the establishment (big government legislator types) was fearful that about $1.5 billion of additional spending would get too much scrutiny. This amount is over and above what is necessary to maintain the current operations of the state government. 

Let’s not allow these big spenders to thwart budget reform. The new maintenance budget process needs to be defended. Sen. Grow and Rep. Horman deserve praise and support, not distraction and attacks, for their new higher accountability model of budgeting. 

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