The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) will need to find $59 million in reductions to balance the next general fund budget, which begins in July. JFAC is scheduled to finish its budget work on March 12. Larger reductions should come when JFAC sets the budgets of larger spending areas, like public education and health and human services. Lawmakers did find another $1.7 million in reductions Wednesday beyond what Gov. Butch Otter recommended in January.
The most divisive department lawmakers tackled was the attorney general’s budget. JFAC trimmed $502,400 beyond the governor’s suggested $1 million reduction. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told JFAC that reductions to his budget could put the state’s legal position at risk and cost the state more money in the long run. “It’s a bare bones budget,” Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, said.
Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, attempted to reduce funding to a special litigation fund for the attorney general. Siddoway, a rancher, said that at first he wanted to use the $291,600 for legal efforts dealing with big horn sheep and wolves. He wanted the cut to send a message to the attorney general. “We need some aggressive people to protect our rights,” he said. “I initially wanted to put that money where I wanted to put it. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to put that money where it will benefit the state of Idaho the most.”
Siddoway’s effort failed. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he appreciated Siddoway’s intentions and called him brutally honest, but said the attorney general needed that money for legal work. “That fund is obligated for contingencies that we aren’t able to see,” he said.
The Division of Professional-Technical Education (PTE) saw the biggest additional reduction among budgets approved Wednesday. PTE, which manages training programs at Idaho universities, community colleges, and high schools, will see an additional $1.3 million reduction from its original spending in the current budget. Most of that reduction came from a permanent holdback in the current budget year. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, echoed Bolz about the slim budget for the division. “It’s pretty bare bones, when we have increasing enrollment,” he said. The year-over-year reduction, including reductions from both JFAC and the governor, totals $4.1 million.
The State Appellate Public Defenders and Military Division would also see small reductions on top of the governor’s recommendations. Appellate public defenders will see an additional $66,000 in reductions, for a total cut of $190,900, which is 8.9 percent of their budget. The department will actually add a full-time attorney in the next budget, but expects that hiring to increase efficiency, since that money would have otherwise gone to pay outside lawyers, who would charge the state a higher hourly rate. “Putting that person in there is going to be much more effective and much more efficient,” Bolz said.
The Military Division would see a $474,800 reduction in general fund spending from JFAC, which is $49,000 beyond what Otter called for. State general funds cover $4.8 million, less than 10 percent of the Military Division’s $56 million budget. Federal money covers the bulk of the division’s budget.
All six budgets JFAC approved Wednesday will also see reductions, though two departments would be spared the full cuts recommended by the governor. State agricultural research and extension programs would see a $2.4 million total reduction, though Otter called for an added $202,500 reduction that lawmakers didn’t pass on. Cuts to extension programs, which have services in 42 Idaho counties, have been one area some lawmakers have tried to spare. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said these reductions would hurt the state’s farming economy. “This will definitely have a trickle down effect with regard to jobs,” she said.
The Office of the State Board of Education would see a $2 million reduction in the next budget, which begins in July. JFAC’s recommended reduction is $6,500 less than Otter’s recommendation. That budget goes toward staff support for the education board and doesn’t go directly to public schools.