Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gavel drops on 2010 Legislature

Session closes in shadow of tight budget

Express Staff Writer

Wendy Jaquet

The 2010 Idaho Legislature came to an end Monday evening, with Idaho lawmakers able to avoid the marathon session that marked the previous year's trip to the Capitol.

Whereas House and Senate members kept working until May last year, this session saw a much earlier exit, attributed in part to the state's shrinking budget.

"If we don't have money to spend, there's not much for us to argue about," Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said Tuesday in an interview.

Jaquet is a member of the Legislature's Joint Finance Appropriations Committee, the panel largely responsible for the state's budget and determining how tax dollars are spent.

With the committee, and the rest of the lawmakers, approving a $2.38 billion general funds budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, the state is looking at a significant reduction from the budget approved during last year's session.

The current fiscal year remains in flux as well, with the approval of a reduced budget of $2.28 billion, down from the original $2.5 billion. However, if revenues continue to fall below projected levels, then Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter could be forced to dip into funding sources needed for next year to balance the current budget.

If necessary, Jaquet said, the state could dip into reserves and remaining stimulus money, but that could create difficulties with the upcoming fiscal year.

"There are some serious challenges coming down the pike," Jaquet said. "We're using a lot of one-time money and authorized the governor to access funds if needed, but then we would need to find money to plug holes for next year."

All state departments are looking at expenditure reductions during the next fiscal year. That includes schools, which avoided cuts this fiscal year. Jaquet said a $128 million reduction for schools—about 7.5 percent—would likely mean more students per classroom, pay cuts for teachers, the possibility of fewer teachers and program cuts.

"I think we will hear a lot more about [school cuts] in September with people saying, 'Wait a minute, this isn't what I envisioned,'" Jaquet said.

Other department budgets that gave Jaquet cause for concern include Corrections, and Health and Welfare.

Jaquet said one of the more frustrating aspects of this year's Legislature was 15 bills she described as "taking on the feds." She said Idaho's involvement in the fight against the recently passed federal health-care reform bill would simply take time away from other efforts that could better benefit the state.

"I can't imagine we're going to get anywhere with this," Jaquet said. "It's almost hypocritical—one minute we're bashing the government and the next we're taking their [stimulus] money."

Other notable bills from the 2010 Legislature include one approved, after being brought forth by the House's Resource and Conservation Committee, that makes hunting license information private. Both Jaquet and fellow District 25 Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, voted in favor of the bill.

Jaquet said that although she had reservations about limiting access to public information, she thinks the bill is necessary to stem the harassment of hunters that has arisen in the wake of this year's wolf hunt.

"I feel that a person who has a legal permit to hunt a big game animal and is abiding by the law should not be harassed," she said. "I don't think it inflicts on free speech and I'm tired of the lack of civility."

Jaquet said she was disappointed that the House killed a bill to fine motorists who text while driving. Opponents of the bill said this safety problem could be treated by having police officers cite people for inattentive driving. The Legislature also stalled on a proposed bill to outlaw cockfighting.

Jaquet said that if re-elected she's looking forward to next year's Legislature to keep working on a bill that would give tax credit to businesses that create renewable energy projects. A bill got printed this year, but Jaquet said other lawmakers found fault with the size of the credit, currently proposed for 20 percent of the cost of the project, and that, as written, it would allow businesses to transfer the tax credit to other businesses.

Neither Pence nor Michelle Stennett (who replaced her husband, state Sen. Clint Stennett, for the 2010 Legislature while he recovers from cancer) could be reached for comment by press time.

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