On Friday, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will begin setting the 2013 budget, but on Thursday, members heard from House and Senate committee chairs about how to spend the money.
Some of the committee chairs asked for more money for state workers, while others asked for program funding increases.
The most ardent call for wage increases came from Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, head of the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee, who said lack of acceptable pay rates are leading to turnover in police and correction workforces and gaps in law enforcement coverage on Idaho roads.
Darrington said some of the remote highways inIdahodon’t see Idaho State Police officers each day. “That’s not adequate coverage,” Darrington said. “That’s not acceptable. The state police needs people to help us and protect us.”
His House counterpart, Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, echoed that sentiment, but added that increases in drug stops by officers are taking cops off the roads. “It’s unreal how many of those drug cases they are making,” Wills said.
Wages are so low, Wills warned, that Idaho’s jails and police departments are become a “training ground” for surrounding states. That means high turnover and fewer officers out on the highways. “If we can’t take care of our citizens, we’re in trouble,” Wills said.
Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, chair of the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee, also asked JFAC to spend more money on workers. Part of Gov. Butch Otter’s 2013 budget includes a one-time, 3 percent bonus for state workers, including teachers, if revenues meet targets, but Andreason instead wants permanent 3 percent raises for public workers.
Andreason said that after long stretches without pay hikes, state workers are becoming wary and demoralized. “The message to the employees about their value would be significantly improved,” Andreason said.
Another notable request came from Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, head of the Senate Transportation Committee. Hammond, citing that a large number of Idaho bridges are more than 50 years old and funding streams aren’t adequate to maintain road surfaces, said the Legislature needs to find new ways to pay for highway construction, including dipping into the general fund.
“We have to take care of that,”Hammond said. “We have bridges that are old. Truly, we’ve got to address that issue.”
The idea was met with surprise from Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, budget committee co-chair. “That was a bomb,” Bell said. “Woo!”
Idaho’s road funding comes through the state’s gas tax, as well as the federal government. Hammond said lawmakers might also explore indexing the state’s gas tax to inflation.
“Nothing can be off the table if we are to maintain … what we already have,” Hammond warned.
Other programs receiving attention during the two-hour hearing were preparing the Medicaid system to integrate with an online exchange system, dam maintenance and upgrades to computer systems.