The state government’s financial predicament appears to be growing, yet policymakers are unwilling to publically admit the obvious: taxpayers gave the University of Idaho $10 million in 2007 that hasn’t been spent. Were the money returned, it could help defray against a possible budget crisis next year.
Lawmakers appropriated the $10 million to help pay for a livestock research center. The center was billed as a way to help the livestock industry address problems posed by having large-scale Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have taken root in Idaho. Idaho’s livestock industry has grown to into a more than $3 billion industry; the state is the nation’s fourth biggest milk producer.
University of Idaho Government Relations Director Rich Garber contends the project is moving along, even though nothing’s been built and there’s no telling when it will be.
In addition to the $10 million the Legislature put in, industry has pitched in $5 million. The delay apparently comes from the university’s plan to sell its land in Caldwell to kick in another $10 million for the project. Garber told me, “When the bottom fell out of the (real estate) market, that kind of took the steam out of our funding strategy. We felt we didn’t want to put the Caldwell property up on a fire sale.”
Policymakers could just shelve just project, and there’s plenty of precedence for doing so. In 2001, the Legislature and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne dumped $86 million into 21 construction projects statewide and were ready to vacate the Statehouse so that it could be renovated. But a colossal decline in tax collections prompted state leaders to delay the Capitol renovation and the other construction projects and commandeer all the associated cash to keep the state general fund from hemorrhaging.
While lawmakers are preparing for another round of budget cuts this winter, Gov. Butch Otter apparently isn’t entertaining the idea of halting the research center in favor of the safety and security $10 million might afford.
“As I’m sure you know from your conversation this morning with Rich Garber, the project IS going forward, so your question is moot,” Otter spokesman Mark Warbis said in an email when asked about the possibility.
This week, the university is going to scout southern Idaho for existing facilities to retrofit into a research center.
House Appropriations Vice Chairman Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, said he has mixed feelings about continuing the project, but his concern is that the university is closing other research centers, like the one in Parma, while moving ahead this new one. The $10 million could be used to keep the research centers open, at least temporarily.
“That was one of thing I was kind of looking at as an effort to hold the line,” Bolz said.
From a free market perspective, taxpayers simply should not have to underwrite the livestock research center. The industry should fund the project itself. If dairies and beef producers believe the center is critical to their continued success or failure, they should be willing to pay for it without needing taxpayer help. If the state moves ahead with the project, the government has to be able to explain why the livestock industry gets a tax-funded research center while other segments of the economy, say, the electronics sector, don’t.
In any case, it’s difficult to understand how this center, even if it really is deserving of state support, can continue to be funded in light of other significant and unavoidable budget problems looming this winter.
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