Please take a moment to cheer Gov. Brad Little and his administration for proactively getting Idaho’s fiscal house in order ahead of a potential economic downturn. Spending restraint is a tough job that too few elected officials choose to do.
Late last month, Zach Hauge, the governor’s chief of staff, directed state agencies to tighten their belts just a bit. The order requires agencies to trim 1% from their current budgets. The directive also requires agencies to rewrite their budget proposals for next year, using 98% of this year’s appropriation as a starting point, what wonks and nerds refer to as a “base reduction.”
“For the past few years, Idaho has topped the charts in growth. … We expect revenue growth to continue, though at a slower pace than previously anticipated,” Hauge said in a memo to agency heads. “The time to prepare for the inevitable economic slowdown is now—when times are good.”
Little will call for a “spending reset,” Hauge said, as part of the budget he prepares for the 2020 legislative session. The goal, said Hauge, is to “better align state spending growth with anticipated state revenue growth in the coming years,” so that the state can meet its constitutional balanced budget obligation.
Exempt from the spending adjustments are K-12 public schools, which Hauge said are “guaranteed to include continued investments.” Other agency-specific exceptions to the governor’s order “will be communicated directly,” Hauge noted.
The bias toward increased education funding remains worrisome for reasons I’ve previously communicated; much has been spent but there’s little to show for it. But the overall thrust of the budget directive is a refreshing change from what we’ve seen for the decade prior to Little’s election. Spending has increased significantly each year since 2011; the state’s general fund is close to double where it was in 2011 when it was at its lowest point of the recession.
Little’s approach makes it less likely that the state government will have to turn to taxpayers to make up for overspending or make other crisis-motivated decisions about the budget. The governor’s wise approach also means that agencies will do some long-overdue housekeeping and introspection, examining new ways to save money and become more diligent in the use of scarce resources. With the help of his conservative budget director, Alex Adams, Little is in a good position to get this fiscal “reset” done.
Remember, though, Little’s October directive is not the final word on this topic. The governor will still have to present a budget to the Legislature. There will be pressure from agencies and special interest groups to exempt programs from spending restraint. Once presented with a budget, some legislators will resist any call to keep a close handle on the cost of services. This is why the governor needs to hear from you, because I guarantee he’ll get an earful from defenders of Big Government. It is important for Idahoans who support fiscal restraint to take 30 seconds to call or message Gov. Little and thank him for his efforts, in the hopes he’ll be encouraged to continue a fiscally conservative approach to governance.
Little’s first year in office has been a nice change of direction. Little has made solid headway clearing out the underbrush of antiquated provisions in Idaho’s regulatory code. Recently, he announced that several unutilized occupational licensure requirements would be eliminated, and it looks like the Legislature is prepared to follow his lead with additional reforms. He’s fought back against judicial attempts to force taxpayers to pay for unnecessary medical treatment in the prison system. His budget announcement is the latest in a series of praiseworthy developments to emerge from our new governor.