Monday, February 26, 2024

Budget turmoil spills out into the open

by REP. SAGE DIXON / Contributing Writer
| February 11, 2024 1:00 AM

The first month of the session has been one of turmoil, largely behind the scenes, but it spilled out into the open this past week.

There have been a number of factors contributing to the instability of the Legislature generally, and the House of Representatives specifically, but the main point of dispute is a change in the procedure related to the legislative budget process. This contention has caused division between the House and Senate, between members of the budget committee, and in the House Majority Caucus as well. Most of the disagreement, as well as the work to resolve it, has been contained to joint leadership meetings between the House and Senate along with the co-chairs of the budget committee. However, public actions taken by members of the joint committee last Friday caused a reaction in the House that resulted in a member of House leadership being removed from their position. This was an unprecedented action that, although conducted privately within the majority caucus, is now public and will have ramifications immediately, as well as into the future.

One of the only constitutionally required duties of the Idaho Legislature is the setting of the state budget, and, unlike the federal government, we also have a constitutional mandate to balance our budget. The setting of budgets in Idaho has remained fairly consistent for the last 50 years. A joint committee comprised of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee meets every morning during session and crafts budget bills that are then delivered to the legislative bodies and voted on during the floor session like any other bill. The budgets are crafted with the guidance of legislative budget analysts and take into consideration budget submissions from the governor and the specific agency itself. 

Prior to this year, budgets contained two main portions: a “maintenance” portion (the needs) and an “enhancement” portion (the wants) combined together to form an entire agency budget. This is a very simplistic explanation, but is illustrative for the purposes of this article. While grappling with assessing the need for increased funding, it became difficult for members of the committee, let alone every other member of the Legislature, to determine whether, or not, the maintenance portion was steadily growing year over year beyond inflationary adjustments. This uncertainty was compounded by the enormous amount of dollars poured into the state during COVID which swelled budgets in nearly every agency.

Taking a clue from the state of Utah, the co-chairs of JFAC decided to implement a new system of budgeting that would allow the committee to explore the true base funding needs of an agency, while clearly separating out requests for new funding into a different decision point. In a departure from past precedent, two separate budget bills would be produced for each agency. One would be the maintenance portion (the base budget along with inflation adjustments and increases to salaries and benefits), and the other would be the enhancements (new employees, new vehicles, new programs, etc.). Because the Legislature cannot adjourn until all the budgets are set, this separation is intended to ensure that all agencies are funded with their basic needs in the event that the Legislature is not convinced of the need for growth.

What seems like an efficient process to increase transparency and accountability in budgeting was not greeted warmly by some legislators and the process began to stall while legislative leadership discussed possible solutions. The main objection was about what was the definition of a “maintenance” budget, and who, or what, determined that definition. In addition, there was concern about grouping a number of the maintenance budgets together into one bill to be presented to the entire Legislature as opposed to the traditional one-at-a-time approach, and a fear that once the maintenance budgets were passed, no other funding would be approved which could leave some agencies with a shortfall in funds. These concerns caused some members of JFAC to pass budgets that competed with budgets that had already passed the committee and that appeared to use the old process for setting budgets.

This action was not well received by most in the House Majority Caucus, which had expressed its approval of the new budgeting process. Because of the perceived mutiny, a series of meetings was held but these failed to allay the ire of most in the Caucus. JFAC is moving forward with the new process, and, while the House is trying to work together once more, the battle seems to have moved to the Senate. 

I am optimistic that my next update will bring better news, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have served District 1.

Rep. Sage Dixon represents Bonner and Boundary counties in District 1A in the Idaho House of Representatives.

Recent Headlines