If it were up to Rep. Darrell Bolz, there would be a lot more discussion about the role of government in these uncertain economic conditions - in the interest of efficiency in government, and to the benefit of Idaho taxpayers.
"What do committees do right now?" Bolz asked rhetorically. "They talk about legislation - bills that may or may not help government operate better."
Discussion of legislation, of course, is part of the process. But Bolz, R-Caldwell, would like to see committees take on a broader role. For instance, education committees from both chambers should be talking about the direction of public and higher education in Idaho. Those discussions should go beyond money.
What needs to be done to make the public schools perform better? And does Idaho - a state that is strapped for money -- need four universities, four presidents and four different missions? These conversations are not happening.
"The public schools and higher education are under one roof, the State Board of Education. Yet there seems to be a disconnect; so many graduates of Idaho high schools are taking remedial classes as college freshmen," Bolz said. "The universities are going one way, the public schools are going another and they don't seem to be commuting with one another."
As Bolz sees it, things need to change if the Legislature is going to effectively define the role of state government. Many lawmakers talked about taking those steps at the start of this year's session, but those plans were substantially aborted when more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money came available to the state. After Governor Otter agreed to take the money, the legislative budget process became an exercise of plugging holes in budgets such as education, highways and bridges, and health services. The session of "change" became more of a session of "business as usual."
There were some cuts. Although public schools received a pinch more than a year ago thanks to the stimulus package, educators wanted more. Various services for women, children and seniors were scaled back and some staff reductions occurred in most state agencies.
But lawmakers came nowhere close to defining, or redefining, the role of government during an economic downturn. There were no serious efforts to do the harder job of examining all areas of state government.
"There are duplication of services in so many areas, yet we are not talking about those," Bolz said. "When a budget comes up, the No. 1 thing people want to know about is the number of fulltime employees. That's micro managing. What we need to be talking more about is where government should go and how we should get there."
Those kind of discussions could indeed occur if the economic downturn continues a few years longer. But they probably won't happen if Idaho continues to receive a bailout from the federal government.
"If the conditions remain, we could be looking at Stimulus 2," Bolz said. "There is a lot of opposition to the federal bailouts, but there's also the mentality that if we don't take the money, then somebody else will."
Chuck Malloy is Special Projects Writer for the Idaho Freedom Foundation.