Idaho government workers spent almost $20 million on furniture, cars, trucks and computer equipment during the 2008-09 budget year that ended in June, according to an analysis of records from the state controller's office.
From July 1, 2008, to June 30, the state spent $8.5 million on computer equipment, $1.1 million on furniture and $10.1 million on cars and light trucks. Of that total, about 30 percent, or $5.9 million, came directly from the state general fund, which is supplied principally through sales and income taxes.
This is actually an improvement of sorts. During the recession and budget crisis of 2001-02, state officials practically ignored Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's order to curtail capital purchases and spent $31.2 million on automobiles, furniture and computers. So while state government (including federal funds) has grown by $2 billion since 2002, Idaho spent $11.5 million less on what some might describe as nonessentials this year than it did seven years ago.
But it's still frustrating to hear lawmakers depict the state's budget crisis as one in which the cupboards have been picked bare, and cuts have been made "to the bone." No, they haven't. I don't dispute that the Idaho State Police needs to buy new vehicles, but I wonder if it really needed $2.2 million worth, or if it could have managed on half of that. And while clearly the State Police needs new patrol cars every now and then, I wonder if the state Historical Society or the South Central District Health Department, which spent a combined $105,000 on vehicles, could have waited a year or more.
Truly, while the numbers seem to suggest a level of spending that makes me queasy, there's plenty to indicate that Gov. Butch Otter has a better handle on the spending than his recession predecessor, Kempthorne. I've criticized Otter for his vapid legislative interactions and demand for tax increases during the worst economic climate since the 1980s. But Otter appears to be implementing some controls that prevent the agency freewheeling that occurred in the earlier part of this decade.
Otter's budget chief, Wayne Hammon, said Wednesday that the Department of Administration has completed a six-month study on consolidating the state's colossal vehicle fleet. And he noted that the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, where I once worked, has cut its vehicle fleet by half since 2007.
"There's always room for at least examining improvements," Otter communications director Mark Warbis said, reiterating the governor's desire to get rid of superfluous state government functions. "This is a continuing process of monitoring and policing to make sure there's no backsliding."
Indeed. Hammon noted that it's impossible to know for sure whether an employee in some far-flung Idaho hamlet needs a new computer, and those decisions have to be left to agency directors. State leaders, then, have to depend on agency bosses who won't shriek and whine or insist that an inconvenience is a calamity.
But lawmakers are reticent when it comes to delving into the details behind the numbers in state government spending. They'll trust the governor to do his job, state employees to do theirs and expect any shenanigans will come to light without their involvement, much the way I expect my kids will disclose their misconduct without prodding from me. For some reason, my system doesn't work as well as I would hope.
State government is composed of 26,000 people spending taxpayer money in one form or other. Most do a good job, and many are concerned that taxpayer money is spent wisely. But then again, we're in the middle of a fiscal crisis, and somehow we still managed to spend almost $20 million on cars, trucks and computers. And we know we wouldn't spend on such things when our household budgets are exhausted. Even if we're doing better than we've ever done before, some questions - and additional improvements - are in order.
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].