With this being an election year and many incumbent legislators and state officials facing primary challengers, everyone is eager for the legislative session to end early (perhaps as early as March 21) so they can go home and start campaigning – hopefully without having voted for or against anything that will haunt them later. However, to judge by the first week of the legislative session, that’s not necessarily going to be the case.
It all started with the traditional beginning of the legislative session, when Governor C.L “Butch” Otter gave his State of the State speech. Usually the various agencies and legislators of the Governor’s party go along with what he suggests, but not necessarily this year.
First, Otter predicted that state revenue will be 6.4 percent higher than this fiscal year, which started last July. However, his proposed budget increases spending by only 3.7 percent. Though the Idaho economy is recovering, he said he didn’t want the state budget to grow as fast as revenues. The Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee, the Legislative committee that decides on a starting point for the budget, agreed with him – unlike some past years, where the committee decided on a lower figure than the Governor, the committee used his figure. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will decide on a final figure before setting the budget.
Despite the improved economy, though, that 3.7 percent didn’t include any raises for state employees, who have had raises only once in the past five years, or teachers. Instead, Otter said agency heads should use “salary savings” – money the department saved between when employees left and new ones were hired – for raises.
However, the Legislature convened the Change in Employee Compensation committee (CEC), which hadn’t actually met since 2008 even though it’s supposed to meet every year. It voted unanimously to provide 1 percent raises for state employees, plus an additional 1 percent in bonuses – which means they may not be back the following year nor will they apply to retirement. The raises will be by merit, which means not everyone gets a 1 percent raise, but that’s how much it amounts to altogether. That’s just for state employees; it remains to be seen whether the Legislature gives raises to teachers too. Each 1 percent for state employees costs about $5 million, while 1 percent for teachers would cost about $10 million.
Speaking of teachers, Otter and members of legislative leadership talked a lot about how much they supported education and the work of the Task Force for Improving Education, which met for the past year and came up with 20 recommendations, amounting to $350 to $400 million. However, when it came down to it, Otter’s budget didn’t include even enough to pay for the first year of what he said would be a five-year plan to implement the committee’s recommendations. In fact, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna almost immediately criticized the Governor’s budget – which agency heads don’t usually do – by saying it actually amounted to a $21 million pay cut for teachers, because it eliminated a bonus fund for them.
What else was in the Governor’s budget? Well, for one thing, $30 million in unspecified tax cuts. That’s after $20.7 million in tax cuts in 2013, mainly through reducing the personal property tax businesses pay, and $35 million in tax cuts in 2012 for corporations and the wealthy. What wasn’t in the budget? An expansion of Medicaid, meaning people who don’t earn enough to pay for medical insurance under Obamacare, but earn too much for Medicaid, are still stuck without coverage.
It may be an interesting year.