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Otter magic: Turning $140 million and 6 percent into $104 million and 3.7 percent

Otter magic: Turning $140 million and 6 percent into $104 million and 3.7 percent

Wayne Hoffman
January 13, 2014
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January 13, 2014

I love a good magic trick. One of my favorite performers happens to be an illusionist by the name of Wayne Hoffman. I admit, I’m a little partial, for obvious reasons, but I am amazed at how he appears to bend glass or refill an empty soda can using only his mind.

If you’re a supporter of struggling magicians, consider Gov. Butch Otter’s budget recommendation a victory for the performing arts and executive branch sleight of hand. Otter’s magic trick allows him to propose a budget that calls for considerable new spending in education, health care, natural resources and criminal justice—he also recommends more than $17 million for the replacement of old cars and other equipment in agencies— and still manage to keep the general fund budget to a 3.7 percent increase.

It really is a marvel. I know it is considered a sin against the arts to reveal how magicians pull off their tricks, but here’s how he pulled off this trick: The governor hides his spending increases in the crevices of the budget, where few dare to look.

- He’s taken $15 million in building repairs, disguised it as a fund transfer and tucked it into the current year’s budget, where it generally would attract little attention.

- The $18 million he’s setting aside for wolves, water and to defend the state’s ban on gay marriage are also treated as fund transfers in 2015, not direct general fund spending.

- New Medicaid spending is treated as a reduction in general fund expenses, rather than new Medicaid spending, which is what it really is.

When you pull back the curtain and reveal the trick, you find that the governor’s $104 million 3.7 percent spending increase is actually about $140 million and nearly 6 percent.

Whether you agree or disagree with the governor’s spending blueprint really is not the issue here. I happen to think it’s excessively spendy and unaffordable. What troubles me is that the budget is hardly transparent. Idaho taxpayers shouldn’t have to guess what their governor and lawmakers are doing. It should be straightforward. A 3.7 percent spending increase should truly be a 3.7 percent spending increase. A budget that proposes more spending, in this case, about 6 percent, should be clearly identified as such.

This is not the first time Otter has played this game. A couple of years ago, the governor treated a $20 million expense—pay raises for state employees—as a reduction in revenues rather than an expense to the general fund.

Taxpayers don’t have time to read hundreds of pages of agency budgets, or analyze the governor’s budget recommendation or agency requests. They don’t have time to listen to hours and hours of testimony in the budget committee. What they should have is a straightforward, aboveboard description of what politicians are recommending to do with their money. In the case of Otter’s budget, they’re getting something less than an honest portrayal of reality.

My favorite illusionist, Wayne Hoffman, does a trick where he correctly guesses the amount of money hidden in the palm of someone’s hand. It shouldn’t take that Wayne Hoffman, or this one either, to accurately figure out how much money state government has or where it is spending it.

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