Federal thuggery: it is their way or no way

Wayne Hoffman Articles

Last year, the federal government’s decision to withhold millions of dollars, risking student access to the state’s broadband education network, showed how vulnerable Idaho is to federal edicts.

The 2014 education broadband disaster is this year’s child support fiasco. Today, once again, the federal government is threatening to withhold millions of dollars. Interestingly, the threat doesn’t just apply to the state’s participation in a nationwide child support enforcement system. The Obama administration has specifically warned that Idaho’s punishment for failing to adopt specific and supposedly non-negotiable child support legislation will be the loss of $30.4 million that goes to more than a dozen different programs that have nothing to do with child support.

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This new level of federal thuggery underscores the importance of a bill that passed the Legislature unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter. Senate Bill 1152 requires state agencies to delineate each grant received by the federal government used in support of state programs, explain where the money goes and what might occur if the federal money goes away.

Additionally, the bill requires agencies to report so-called “maintenance of effort” agreements with the federal government, wherein agencies have agreed to a funding minimum for particular programs in exchange for D.C. dollars.

Furthermore, agencies are told to notify lawmakers when they are aware that federal funding is likely to go away. That provision is intended to prevent state officials from being caught with their pants down when the federal government turns off the money spigot. Agencies are also supposed to prepare contingencies that plan for a possible 10 percent or greater reduction in money from the national treasury.

Idaho, like many states in the nation, receives a sizable share of its operating budget from the federal government. About a third of the state government’s budget comes from the feds—about $2.5 billion, nearly double what the state received 10 years ago. Even though the federal government is out of money, Washington, D.C., keeps spending and we keep pretending the dollars won’t one day stop flowing.

Senate Bill 1152 is an offshoot of and improvement on Gov. Butch Otter’s executive order, signed in 2014 after the education network blowup. It’s obvious, though, that more work must be done to recognize how dependent Idaho is on the federal government.

Prior to this month, few people recognized that Idaho’s ability to run its child support program was so intertwined with federal programs and services. Other high dollar federal programs have similar connections to state systems: Unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicaid and transportation have federal dollars practically sewn into the fabric of these state-run programs.

These interdependencies of state and federal programs and of state and federal dollars underscore Idahoans’ vulnerability. Last year, kids using broadband education services were threatened. Today, it’s people receiving child support payments. Who knows what’s next.

As Rep. Maxine Bell, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said debating in support of Senate Bill 1152, the federal government has been “an unreliable partner” when it comes to money.

But upon further reflection, the federal government is more “master” than “partner,” and it’s good that the state is taking steps to keep us from again being surprised, blackmailed and bullied by Uncle Sam.