Well, the Legislature is finally out of town, but not until after it finished having a turf battle that forced them to stick around another week for something that ended up making not a big difference.
First, some background. The Legislature makes two kinds of decisions. One is budget – what do they spend money on. The other is policy – what sort of things should the government do, and how. The budget issues are handled by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, headed by Rep. Maxine Bell (R-Jerome) and Sen. Dean Cameron (R-Rupert); the policy issues are handled by the various committees devoted to each subject – Education, Commerce, Local Government, and so on, in each branch of the Legislature. These are called “germane committees.”
JFAC isn’t supposed to make decisions on policy. The germane committees are supposed to do that. But it can sometimes be awfully hard to tell where a budget decision ends and a policy decision begins. Plus, the budget committee sometimes gets to its part of the session before the germane committee does, and it can’t exactly wait around for them. So there’s been a conflict over the past several years where germane committee chairs get into a snit because they feel that JFAC is overstepping its bounds. This has particularly happened with education, where the members of JFAC have tended to be a lot more sympathetic to the needs of schools than have the germane committees.
That brings us to this year.
Pretty much the last budget that JFAC sets is the education budget. This year, it included funding for a couple of new programs, for a total of $24 million out of the $1.3 billion education budget – less than 2 percent.
Well, that didn’t sit too well with Sen. John Goedde (R-Coeur d’Alene), chair of the Senate Education Committee, and he convinced a number of other members of the Senate that JFAC needed to be taught a lesson. The result was that the education budget was voted down, 18-17.
This was a problem because the Legislature has to agree on an education budget before they can go home, or we won’t have a public school system next year.
So then everyone had to negotiate for another week. The upshot was that a new bill was written to create the two new education programs. But this time the bill was written and voted on and passed by the Education Committees. And then another education budget bill was written for the exact same amount as the first one – but making reference to the two new programs, now created by the Education Committees, and not by JFAC. Then everybody could be all happy, the education budget bill passed the Senate on a 29-5 vote, and everyone could go home.
It’s estimated that the Legislature costs $30,000 a day to operate, so that little exercise in turf-guarding cost Idaho about $150,000, or about six times as much as the two programs cost.
Ironically, the Legislature had been rushing to adjourn itself by Friday, March 29, and so had decided not to talk about expanding Medicaid – something that reports estimated could save up to $9.2 billion over the next ten years, as well as provide medical insurance to up to 100,000 more Idahoans. But the decision would have been fraught with all the same proper-role-of-government issues as the Affordable Care Act, and taken too long, so they skipped it. Then because of the education budget, they ended up staying in town an extra week anyway – but still didn’t tackle the Medicaid expansion issue. Legislative leadership says they’ll look at it next year instead.