On Tuesday, members of the Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committed projected Idaho would take in $2.667 billion in fiscal year 2013, a number $33 million less than the figure projected by Gov. Butch Otter.
That means that lawmakers may be forced to choose which Otter-backed initiatives to pursue next year. In his budget for 2013, Otter laid out plans for $41 million in bonuses for state workers, $60 million for reserve accounts, $45 million in unspecified tax cuts and more money for public schools and higher education.
Otter told reporters at a breakfast meeting Wednesday that lawmakers could still achieve all the initiatives as long as revenues meet expectations.
Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, a co-vice chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), told IdahoReporter.com he is skeptical of Otter's message to reporters. "I'm going to have to look at the numbers," Bolz said. "I would say it's going to be pretty difficult to do."
If the lower revenue number means choosing among items on Otter's wish list, Bolz says lawmakers will have some tough decisions to make. "That's going to be the key issue," he said. "How much do we do in tax reduction, for example, if we can do any tax reductions?"
Bolz didn't say what his priority would be among the governor's list, but did write last week in the Idaho Press-Tribune that he might have an initiative of his own. As part of the 2011 education reform package, teacher salaries will be reduced to pay for technological classroom upgrades.
That doesn’t sit well with Bolz. “Looking at it from the perspective that teachers are very important in the educational process, it would seem wise to backfill and reduce the likelihood of losing teachers due to the fund reduction,” Bolz wrote in the newspaper.
The state would need about $20 million to backfill teacher salaries on top of the $31 million increase Otter is already requesting for public schools.
Another lawmaker on the budget panel, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, told IdahoReporter.com she would like employee bonuses to be a top priority for lawmakers and isn’t as concerned with pushing tax cuts through for next year. “We’ve been revenue-challenged … and I would certainly look at some kind of compensation for them (state workers) before I would look at a tax cut,” Ringo said. “You can be certain that any increase in pay for them will flow right back into the economy.”
How will lawmakers go about slicing dollars from Otter’s initiatives if forced to do so? Ringo says she would avoid a piecemeal method and instead opt to remove entire objectives from Otter’s budget. “I think when you do it piecemeal, you find yourself not doing a lot of good in any particular area,” she explained. “It’s kind of political to put a little money here and a little money there just to be able to say you did it.”
Bolz wouldn’t say exactly how he would arrange Otter’s ideas within budget constraints. “That’s a decision we have to make,” he said.
JFAC won’t start setting budget for a few weeks and isn’t bound by the revenue target set by the revenue committee Tuesday. It’s likely budget writers will set the final revenue target after January’s final tax numbers are released in February.
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