Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Budget, education issues in New Year

District legislators prepare for upcoming session


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

State legislators Sen. Michelle Stennett, left, Rep. Wendy Jaquet, center, and Rep. Donna Pence share a light-hearted moment during a meeting with Blaine County commissioners last month. The commissioners expressed concern over the state’s budget, as well as the possibility of more cuts to the Department of Health and Welfare. The department closed down its Bellevue branch in May, and Commissioner Angenie McCleary said the situation is “dire” for county residents who require those services. Photo by David N. Seelig

If there's one thing that worries District 25 state legislators about the upcoming session, it's the budget.

"It doesn't look pretty," said Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum.

Legislators will be faced with the task of trimming the state's $2.2 billion budget by about $270 million this session. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said the shortfall is mostly made up of one-time stimulus funding that will expire in the next budget cycle.

Stennett said the trimming and lack of funding will prevent progress in many areas. She said the fact that it's not an election year and legislators won't be under pressure to push new programs makes it more likely that they will not be as active this session.

"If there's no money, it's not going to go anywhere," Stennett said. "[The shortfall] is really, really, really going to hurt what we can do."

Jaquet said the Legislature could put a dent in the shortfall, but the situation is complicated by the November election, which she said included a "mandate" from the voters against imposing new taxes.

One way to help the shortfall would be to raise the cigarette tax by $1 a pack. Jaquet said that could bring the state $48 million.

Another potential revenue-raising measure is elimination of the grocery tax credit, which is a rebate of $50 per person. That would mean an extra $130 million to the state, but Jaquet said it's not likely to pass either the House or the Senate.

More likely, Stennett said, are cuts in public schools and public health care.

The possibility of increasing funding for the Department of Health and Welfare was discussed during Blaine County Legislative Day last month, when the District 25 delegation met with Blaine County Commissioners and leaders of community organizations. However, the legislators said increased funding was not likely.

"There is just no ability for Health and Welfare to reach out to the community," County Commissioner Angenie McCleary told the legislators. "It's in such a dire place that they don't have the ability to do those simple things."

The Bellevue office, which closed in May, was one of the 29 locations statewide shut due to budget constraints. The office used to offer services to about 80 people on a regular basis, but McCleary said that only two people are now receiving essential services in Blaine County.

"I know it's difficult and it's not going to change overnight," McCleary said. "In my opinion, the state needs to do a lot of planning and prioritizing."

Jaquet acknowledged the problem, but also said the state simply cannot afford to do more.

"People are falling through the cracks all over the state," she said. "We're not going to open the office."

In fact, Rep. Donna Pence said during an interview last week, Health and Welfare is likely to see further cuts.

"It's really difficult to maintain any type of Health and Welfare System," she said. "[State residents] want the services, but they don't want to pay for them."

Pence said another possible area of concern is education. The former teacher said that most state residents want a better education system, but no one knows how to fund it.

Jaquet said 51 percent of the state's budget goes toward schools, but she anticipates a 7 percent decrease in school funding to help make up the budget shortfall. That could mean that schools would need to begin sharing resources such as school counselors, or that some districts may need to shorten their school weeks.

"I just think that's sad," Jaquet said. "We should be talking about expanding those hours."

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As an example, she pointed to the Gooding School District, which has already gone to a four-day week, though it operates some programming on Fridays. She said that schedule is tough on parents, especially single working parents who rely on school as a safe place for kids.

"School is babysitting," she said.

Stennett said her main concern is that education is a key driver of economic development.

"We're operating really, really leanly already," she said. "You're shooting yourself in the foot if you cut the thing that can help you economically."

Stennett said education is even more important in times of recession, especially higher education.

"In times like this, when people are going back to school ... we really do have to focus on our community colleges and vocational-technical schools," she said. "We sometimes forget how important higher education is."

During a luncheon with College of Southern Idaho and community leaders last month, Jaquet and CSI President Jerry Beck discussed the possibility of the college's building dorms in Sun Valley as part of a newly expanded hospitality program.

"We need it," Jaquet said of the program. "It would give a kind of vitality to the community. It's just so important to have a young-people worker base."

Beck said at the luncheon that the college has the money to construct the dorms if land could be donated.

One possible source of revenue for the state could be uncollected taxes, the so-called "tax gap," which Stennett estimated could be as high as $250 million per year. Jaquet said it is largely due to ignorance about the state tax code.

Stennett said she would recommend hiring collectors, who can recover $35 in unpaid taxes for each dollar spent on the collectors themselves.

"It's a no-brainer," she said. "Is it going to cover our shortfall? No, but it's a first step."

Since the Legislature is unlikely to introduce much new programming, Stennett said, now is a good time to clean up the state's finances.

"It's a good year to do housekeeping," she said. "If you can't really promote legislation that requires spending, then we need to be really thorough about what our financial situation looks like."

Jaquet suggested similar measures, including restructuring the Idaho Tax Commission. The commission is currently made up of four political appointees, with no executive. She said that leads to a lack of accountability and some confusion over power structure.

"We should watch in January to see what happens," she said, adding that the governor's office may take over development of a reform bill.

Stennett agreed that the Tax Commission reform was needed, and pointed out that it may have a financial impact.

"Whenever you restructure and you streamline something, it tends to run smoother," she said. "I think it will economically make them more efficient."

The legislators said the corrections system could also see reform in the upcoming session as part of budget trimming. Jaquet said the state is looking at expanding in-home programs for drug arrests, which would keep nonviolent drug offenders out of jail and on house arrest, reducing the financial burden on the state.

Stennett said costs of setting up such a program could be defrayed by an increase in the beer and wine tax.

Pence said it's important to keep drug offenders close to home, especially if they are nonviolent, capable of holding down a job and in need of rehabilitation.

"If they can be treated, it's cheaper to treat them while they're still working," she said.

Another bill Pence said may come to the floor of the house is what she referred to as a "ham-and-eggs bill." First introduced last year but never voted on, the law would increase regulations on mid-size chicken-raising operations.

While regulations exist for small and large operations, Pence said, the standards regarding the care of chickens and handling of manure are lacking on medium-sized farms, called "chicken castles."

She said larger corporations will contract out care of their chickens to smaller farms to avoid stricter regulations. Chicken farms are regulated by the Department of Agriculture, which Pence said is a conflict of interest because the department also views its job as promoting agriculture.

"It's like having the fox in charge of the hen house," she said.

But no matter how many of these efforts make it to the floor of the Legislature, the senator and representatives agree they have their work cut out for them.

"It's going to be a pretty difficult session," Pence said.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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