The Idaho Human Rights Commission (IHRC) could merge with the Idaho Department of Labor to offset a loss in state funding and stave off potential elimination.
“There is a lot of overlap,” said Pam Parks, the director of the IHRC. Parks said other states combine civil rights agencies such as the IHRC that work to prevent discrimination in schools, the workplace, and housing, with labor departments, which handle unemployment claims and other business and worker issues. “We think our missions are very similar,” Parks said. “Both agencies are committed to providing a workforce for people that is free of discrimination.” The IHRC handles discrimination claims, often mediating between workers and employers to reach a resolution without needing to go to court, Parks said.
In his state budget address, Gov. Butch Otter proposed a four-year phase-out of state funding to the IHRC and other state agencies. In the next budget, Otter is asking for a $200,000 decrease in general fund dollars to IHRC. The commission has also taken $54,000 in holdbacks in the current budget. The state general fund covers about two-thirds of the IHRC budget. Federal funding covers most of the rest of the budget.
“Our budget has always been very lean, so it has been a very difficult and creating process to keep up with the holdbacks,” Parks said about the holdbacks. But she said the IHRC is working on the merger with the labor department that would remove them from the state general fund. “We must play our part in this daunting effort. That’s only fair.”
Merging with the labor department could save some overhead costs, but the IHRC could also receive funding from two special funds dedicated to the labor department. One, called the “penalties and interest” fund, comes from penalties and fees on employers and workers who run afoul of the state unemployment insurance program. The other, called the “special administration fund,” comes from interest earnings off of the state’s unemployment insurance reserve fund. The labor department currently plans to use those funds for building and maintenance projects and other programs, according to John McAllister, chief deputy of the Department of Labor. McAllister said the department can shift those dedicated funds to the IHRC for a few years, if necessary.
“Through 2014 we can manage it,” McAllister said. That would cover the proposed four-year phase out of IHRC. “I can’t promise anything beyond that.” McAllister said the two funds have about $21 million in them currently, though not all of that could be drawn down for IHRC’s budget, which is less than $1 million a year. McAllister also said the Department of Labor is having to pay out more in unemployment claims, thanks to the national economic slowdown.
Lawmakers would have to approve the merger between the IHRC and the Idaho Department of Labor. Two other agencies that Otter tabbed for losing state funding, the State Independent Living Council and Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, told lawmakers Friday they are looking into other funding sources, but have not come up with a final plan.