Gov. Butch Otter's budget hit balky agencies

Brian Murphy
February 17, 2010
Idaho Statesman

In September, Gov. Butch Otter asked state agencies receiving general fund money to look for possible reductions to help with the state's budget shortfall.

Agencies and commissions that did not respond to his satisfaction got their answer when Otter proposed a fiscal 2011 budget to the Legislature last month.

"Those agencies and departments who chose to kind of thumb their nose at the governor found that they didn't find a place in his budget," said Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs.

Otter's budget proposed ending general fund spending for the Department of Parks and Recreation. He also proposed a four-year phase-out of funding for Idaho Public Television and five smaller commissions and councils - Human Rights, Hispanic Affairs, Independent Living, Developmental Disabilities, and Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

"The budget was meant as a wake-up call for them to get on board," budget director Wayne Hammon said Tuesday. "And with the exception of public television, all of them responded very favorably."

Hammon commended the parks department, the Human Rights and Hispanic commissions and the Independent Living Council for quick work in responding to proposed budget cuts.

The parks department unveiled a business plan to save $4.5 million. The Human Rights Commission is working with the Department of Labor to incorporate and save money. The Hispanic Commission is looking at expanding its mission to attract additional federal dollars.

But he criticized Idaho Public Television, which has generated enormous sympathy and e-mails from the public, for its response to a Sept. 10 call for "possible reductions to help resolve a recently projected $151 million state budget shortfall."

"We had one agency tell us, 'There ain't nothing we can do. We need every single dollar,'" Hammon said.

In a letter dated Sept. 18, Peter Morrill, the general manager of Idaho Public Television, wrote in response to Otter's Sept. 10 request: "We regret that we are unable to voluntarily reduce our general fund appropriation without significantly impacting the viewers we serve."

Other agencies exceeded Hammon's expectations. Idaho's public universities, for example, outlined plans for 4-, 6- and 8-percent cuts.

Morrill said the State Board of Education, which has oversight responsibility for IPTV, signed off on his letter. Morrill said he did not think the Sept. 10 letter from the Division of Financial Management was a call for specific percentage cuts. In his response, Morrill outlined his agency's duties and expenses, pointing out that IPTV had already taken a 49 percent cut in funding from the 2009 budget to 2010.

"I never read that to say we would voluntarily lay off longstanding state employees," Morrill said. "If we erred in that interpretation, then I'm truly sorry."

He said he did not hear from the governor's office about the letter until a Dec. 23 hearing informing him of the four-year phase-out.

"The governor has never said to me the thinking behind (the phaseout), but we have to respect the difficult times the state faces," Morrill said.

IPTV turned in a 42-page business plan to the State Board of Education on Feb. 11, putting forth three scenarios to deal with cuts.

"The business plan they developed does not advance the ball," said Hammon, who added that he does not believe IPTV should be getting general fund dollars.

Otter's spokesman said the budget proposal was not intended as retribution, but fit with Otter's desire to return state government to its proper role.

"Nothing we've done is being punitive or punishing to anyone," Jon Hanian said. "There's no carrot-and-stick approach here."

Hammon said the agencies targeted were not the only ones being uncooperative, but that they had the most easily identifiable solutions to budget cuts. Hammon said Otter does not have direct control over commissions and councils, so their general fund budgets were one of the few avenues open to him to reshape state government.

"The governor is using all the tools he has available, including his authority of the executive budget, to manage a very big, nonhomogeneous administration," Hammon said. "All those things we wanted to do, they have now made it their own and solved these problems. Did it work? I believe it has in every case - except for public television."

Brian Murphy: 377-6444

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