The federal trough is alive and growing among Idaho agencies

Wayne Hoffman Weekly Column

The shutdown of the federal government brings me to a topic I have addressed in the past. And, in fact, it’s one that state officials have addressed as well, but not with great seriousness, I’m sorry to say: The state of Idaho is too reliant on the federal government and its money.

Take a moment to re-read what I just wrote. The “state of Idaho is too reliant on the federal government and its money.” It’s almost as if I just said, “The state of Idaho is too reliant on your lecherous, drunken uncle who is standing on the roadside with a Sharpie and a rectangle of cardboard.” Yes, we, here in Idaho depend on someone equally undependable and unpredictable, and not nearly as loveable or credible: Uncle Sam.

For all the bloviating Idaho politicians do in regard to the feds, our state’s reliance on the federal trough has grown, not shrunk. The growth has been substantial. Not including food stamps and unemployment benefits (another topic for another day), the federal money flowing into state government agencies is expected to be $2.3 billion in this budget year. That’s an increase of 82 percent over the federal government’s funding of our state agencies in 2003, when the federal government put just $1.2 billion into Idaho’s government.

Not to overwhelm the reader with numbers, but in 2003, the federal government’s money comprised about 32 percent of the Idaho government bureaucracy’s funding. Today, it’s about 36 percent. In case you’re wondering, the Legislature appropriated $6.4 billion this year, compared to $3.9 billion 10 years ago.

The spending problem—in particular, the dependence on the largess of Washington, D.C.—is getting worse, not better. Indeed, this is despite the fact in the summer of 2012, Gov. Butch Otter asked his agencies for a complete inventory of federal government grants and programs in the event that the federal government’s spending sequester came about. Otter wanted his agencies prepared for the possibility of a 20 percent cut in spending.

The inventory of programs generated some interesting gems, including those programs engaged by state agencies simply because there was money to be had.

For example, the Idaho Department of Water Resources noted that its shallow underground water inspection program, funded with slightly more than $128,000 in federal cash, probably operated “beyond the direct dictates of state programs.” And were the feds not providing the funding, the agency said, the state probably wouldn’t be engaged in the endeavor.

Well, the sequester arrived earlier in the year. On Oct. 1, the government shutdown arrived. Neither seems to be moving Idaho officials to consider the ramifications of our cuddly relationship with the wayward national government.

Meanwhile, other states are furloughing employees of agencies funded using solely federal money or a mixture of state and federal dollars. North Carolina was looking at an impact on 4,500 health and human services positions alone. In Utah, the state expects to furlough more than 200 employees who oversee federal programs, as well as 270 employees at county health departments, according to press reports.

A spokesman for Gov. Butch Otter says the most immediate impact of the federal shutdown is at the National Guard. As long as the shutdown doesn’t drag on, many programs will be unaffected, the spokesman said.

State policymakers, who steer the ship of state, seem to be unaffected, too. They continue to suck up as much federal money as they can, even when our better judgment tells us we are on a dangerous course.

My friend Ralph Smeed used to complain that certain government officials were “helpless without a federal grant.” Ralph would be sad to know just how far the helplessness has spread.