A central theme in Republican Brad Little’s campaign for governor is that he’s a pro at slashing budgets. In a TV ad Little says: “As your lieutenant governor I cut my budget every year, saving taxpayers money.” Gov. Butch Otter makes the same claim about Little in a separate TV ad. But these assertions are false: Little did not cut his office’s budget each year. And, even when he did cut his office budget, it wasn’t as big a deal as he’d like voters to believe.
To put this issue into context, one needs to remember that the budget for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor is among the smallest in state government. There are only three employees, and Little is one of them. The budget is driven largely by salary and benefit costs, and Little’s salary is set by the Legislature. In the 2009 fiscal year, prior to Otter appointing Little to the lieutenant governor’s post, the office spent $115,300. Here are the office’s actual expenditures during Little’s tenure:
FY 2010: $133,100
FY 2011: $126,000
FY 2012: $124,200
FY 2013: $133,900
FY 2014: $143,400
FY 2015: $155,700
FY 2016: $162,900
FY 2017: $170,000
Since 2012, Little’s office has spent more. One might argue, Little did cut his office budget sometimes. But certainly not each year. How often? Twice. Once in 2011 and again in 2012. That’s a cut of $7,100 one year and $1,800 the next. Not exactly material for budget chopping street cred, let alone two gubernatorial campaign TV ads. In the context of total state general fund spending totaled between $2 billion and nearly $4 billion over the same period, these minute cuts, at best, aspire to be a rounding error.
KTVB-TV, in its analysis of Little’s budget claim wrongly argues that the budget-cut claim is accurate, saying: “While state records show the budget for the lieutenant governor’s office did go up each year, they also show that expenditures were less than the money appropriated, meaning Little’s office spent less than what was allocated each year. So we can verify that Brad Little did routinely cut money from his budget.”
But that statement leaves out a significant detail: The budget for Little’s office is set by the Legislature based largely on numbers supplied to it by Little and Otter. In most years, Little requested somewhat more for his office than Otter ended up recommending. The Legislature sometimes reduced Otter’s recommendation from there, if just a hair. In other words, Little’s history of spending in the lieutenant governor is hardly proof of financial discipline. What would be? Well, Little has been lieutenant governor for nearly a decade. In that time, what tangible thing has he done within the space of billions of taxpayer dollars that have been spent that shows he’s good at wielding a budget axe and saving money.
Proof is important, because Little’s attempt to sound like a budget hawk also flies in the face of history. In 2003, when Little was a senator, he initially sided with lawmakers who wanted to impose bigger cuts to state agencies than Gov. Dirk Kempthorne wanted. But Kempthorne vetoed the reductions and Little then voted with a narrow majority to send the governor the sales taxes and cigarette taxes Kempthorne wanted. During Little’s last full legislative session, 2008, he supported every single agency spending bill that came before lawmakers. In 2009 and again in 2015, Little was a behind-the-scenes supporter of Otter’s plan to raise fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees.
By all accounts, Little is an affable politico and a knowledgeable person, with attributes that could be attractive to voters looking for a candidate that is OK with government as the source of solutions. A fiscal conservative, however, Little is not, contrary to clever advertisements that try to make voters believe otherwise.