As I See It -

Mark Steele
January 21, 2010
Caribou County Sun

I didn't hear the governor's state of the state and budget address a week ago, but I finished reading a copy of it and some of his budget proposals. There's much to agree with and some things will have you scratching your head.

Gov. Otter is the libertarian champion for smaller and leaner government that is more responsive and efficient. Well, mostly. He told the legislature that "we must not raise taxes." You and I would agree with that. But he wants to raise some fees, like state park fees, and toys with ways to fund Idaho's highway improvements. While maybe not technically a tax increase, a fee hike is in the same family.

In one breath the governor notes small business and individual Idahoans "expect stability and predictability in our state tax structure." Yet he points out the legislature will be getting reports from him calling for eliminating the personal property tax. Here we go again. That was the fight two years ago when big business and industry tried to wipe out that same tax, but with the state picking up the tab for the loss many counties with industry would see.

If the legislature approves such a tax break in this down-turned economy, either the counties will eat it from less property tax or the state will try to cover it with money they don't have.

The governor very prudently has asked for another $40 million hold back for the rest of the 2010 fiscal year, including education. While not liking it, most people will agree it has to be done.

His budget will include eliminating 400 positions in state government, but reality is 375 of those are currently vacant and won't be filled. So that impact is not huge.

Gov. Otter's proposed budget is based on zero revenue growth for the upcoming fiscal year. Again, very prudent. And he is suggesting using the reserve funds for the next two years. He and the Republican legislature were conservative last year in using only a portion of those funds to cover shortages, while some Democrats were wanting more of that money to go to education and other funding. The conservative attitude was the correct one and I thank them for that.

Otter also announced he would not allow Idaho to be the nation's dumping ground for elemental mercury. Few will argue with that.

Now the devil is hiding in the details and here are a couple of the minor rubs I have with his budget proposal. He wants to fold the Dept. of Parks and Recreation into the Dept. of Lands and the Dept. of Fish and Game. I'm not certain that's what Idahoans want those agencies doing with their personnel-being camp hosts, fee collectors, and cleaning the showers.

The governor would phase out several commissions and councils over four years-zeroing out their budgets. My sacred cow just got gored in this-Idaho Public Television. They get about $1.6 million from the general fund yearly and I guess he wants that money to be replaced by donations, which they over actively seek already.

While I don't watch a lot of Idaho Public TV, my 91-year-old mother does and I enjoy a cup with her during the legislative session while listening to the legislative wrap-up. What public television in Idaho gives us in rural Idaho is a connection to our state officials that we often don't have elsewhere. There is limited network and print media coverage for those of us in the hinterlands.

Let's keep things in perspective: $1.6 million is about one cheap cup of coffee or a big pop once a year for all Idahoans. In a $2.5 billion budget, it really isn't a mouse track in the forest.

Also to be eliminated over the next four years are the Human Rights Commission, Hispanic Commission, Independent Living Council, Developmental Disabilities Council, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Council, and the Digital Learning Council.

In rough figures, looking at Otter's proposed budget, Visually Impaired is currently set to get $1.4 million from general fund, Human Rights Commission $900,000, Hispanic Commission $106,000, Independent Living Council $113,000, Developmental Disabilities Council which has no general state funding if I read the budgets correctly, and the Council on Deaf and Hearing Impaired that had $25,000 this year and none for next year.

This is a pittance at something like a little over $2.5 million in general fund appropriations. It's $1.60 for every one of Idaho's 1.5 million residents. And that's out of the $1,666 average of each Idahoan's share of the $2.5 billion budget.

And in all of this, we can still keep the Office of Species Conservation whole with $532,000 from the general fund and another $23 million from what I assume is federal funding for what amounts to another level of bureaucracy that was really established to rein in what some leaders in Boise felt was a too independent Fish and Game Dept. that was sometimes crosswise with Idaho politics while representing Idaho sportsmen, especially on dams blocking the historic steelhead and salmon runs back into Idaho.

Not wanting to carp at the governor's budget without offering suggestions, mine would be to eliminate the Office of Species Conservation and the eight employees (it started out with two or three), and let those responsibilities go back to the semi-capable hands of Fish and Game and the State Dept. of Agriculture, who handled those issues before, but without the political correctness that only those in Boise think they have a monopoly on.

By zeroing out that agency, maybe we can then afford Idaho Public Television and the Commission for the Blind, too.