Government spending in Idaho is like a train constantly speeding up, that for years now has left the rails of common sense and fiscal responsibility.
During the 2019 legislative session, for the first time, the Idaho Freedom Foundation tracked which legislators reached for the brakes, and who voted to stoke the engine and crash deeper into the woods. We evaluated whether government agency spending proposals set a fiscally responsible trajectory, and then whether legislators voted to set Idaho back on track.
How did legislators fare?
Their scores ranged from 6 percent to a perfect 100 percent, meaning that some legislators voted for every single spending bill – no matter what. Other legislators rejected bloated agency requests or spending bills for agencies that should not exist, like the Hispanic Commission.
What is the value of reviewing and reporting on spending bills?
Remember, the Idaho Constitution mandates that legislators complete a single task each year: set a balanced budget. Sure, they review new rules and regulations, but they are not required to enact the myriad of other legislation. Some legislation, that pertains to Medicaid policy for example, is clearly important, but most bills deal with matters not noticeable to the general public.
The Spending Index helps illustrate a major Gem State problem. In sum, Idaho's population is growing around 2 percent annually, while personal income is growing at about 5 percent. However, state General Fund spending is up about 8 percent in the Fiscal Year 2020 state budget. Clearly, such spending is not sustainable.
Budgets matter because spending reflects the government of Idaho’s priorities as well as determining Idaho’s direction.
Government agencies, boards, and commissions spend taxpayers’ money, your money. Further, they write the rules and regulations - of which there are more than 8,000 pages - that flow from the laws passed by the legislature. Bigger agencies equate to more staff, and more staff spend more of your more money and promulgate more rules that affect every aspect of your life.
Let’s return to the Spending Index. The Idaho Freedom Foundation reviewed more than 130 appropriation bills that were voted on during the 2019 legislative session. Some bills addressed supplemental spending for the current fiscal year, Fiscal Year 2019, to provide additional money for various agencies.
However, IFF focused primarily on the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, spending for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, 2019. In our review of the FY20 appropriations, we selected 35 spending bills for the Spending Index, spread across familiar agencies and some obscure ones. Below are two examples of spending bills we reviewed.
House Bill 246 was the appropriation for the Office of Information Technology Services. This appropriation consolidated IT functions, reducing a projected 13 positions and saving about $900,000 annually – a good example of what conservatives would hope for: reducing redundancies in government. IFF scored this bill a plus one. Every legislator voted for this bill.
Senate Bill 1171 appropriated the Department of Health and Welfare’s Medicaid budget, including payment for six months of Medicaid expansion, which begins January 2020. IFF pointed out the following in its analysis and rated the bill a minus one.
For Fiscal Year 2020, the Medicaid appropriation represents an overall 15.6 percent increase over FY19, for all funds and a General Fund increase of 17.4 percent. To put that in perspective, Medicaid has gone from consuming 17.3 percent of Idaho’s total spending in FY99 to 29.4 percent in FY19 and is headed to more than 30 percent for FY20, based on this $2.83 billion request.
Of the 104 House and Senate members who voted (one was absent), 73 voted for this huge increase and 31 opposed it. Perhaps more tellingly, only 9 percent of the senators voted no, but 40 percent of the House members voted no. Keep in mind, the House and Senate have exactly the same percentage of Republicans: 80 percent. So, we can conclude, on this bill, House members showed their commitment to fiscal conservatism.
When IFF tallied up all spending bills and calculated the percentages, we saw that the House is the more fiscally conservative body: 33 percent of representatives scored 50 percent or higher, but no member of the Senate did, with no senator scoring higher than 45 percent. Just 11 House members scored 70 percent or higher and nine of those were over 90 percent.
In summary, IFF believes it is high time the public understands what aspect of, and how much, state government is growing in Idaho – and, importantly, which legislators vote for which spending bills. Budgeting is an exercise in the prioritization of resources: It’s your money. IFF believes, in the coming legislative sessions, the Idaho Spending Index will be a tool for legislators to gain a conservative perspective on spending bills. However, it will also help the general public to understand which legislators truly can call themselves fiscally conservative.
Questions about the Spending Index? Click here to email IFF Vice President Fred Birnbaum.