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JFAC: Pick a Number, Any Number

Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Tries to Hit a Moving Target


The year 2011 is not a year to get the numbers wrong. Yet in the wake of a fragile economy and even more fragile nerves, Idaho's number crunchers have been all over the map in their revenue projections.

In November 2010 the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee was warned to anticipate a $340 million shortfall (a whopping 14 percent drop from Idaho's $2.3 billion general fund budget). That's why there was some amount of incredulity on January 10 when Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter's budget chief Wayne Hammon unveiled a 2012 spending plan indicating a $35 million gap. Two weeks later, the shortfall was bumped up to $185 million when the Idaho State Tax Commission reported that "significant claims for renewable energy rebates" were pouring in. On Feb. 16 the Tax Commission said, in effect, "Whoops, my bad." After further review, the commission said the renewable rebates would, in fact, be a "net neutral event as far as impact to general fund revenues." How far off the mark were they? Try $47 million. By Feb. 18 the budget gap was predicted to be $91.8 million, a figure formally adopted by JFAC as a benchmark for budget setting.

The $91.8 million shortfall would result from a mere 3 percent revenue growth rate for fiscal year 2012 (which begins in June 2011). Three percent is considerably less than Idaho's current revenue growth rate which, according to Legislative Budget Director Cathy Holland-Smith, is tracking at 4.8 percent. And 3 percent pales in comparison to the 2012 growth estimate of 6.9 percent forecast by the state's own economists. The significance of the difference is dramatic. If indeed the state's economists are correct, little to no cuts to programs and services would be necessary for Idaho's agencies and departments. Consider that for a moment. That would be no cuts to Health and Welfare, no cuts to Idaho's K-12 public education, no cuts to the state's colleges and universities, and no cuts to the departments of Correction, Environmental Quality, State Police or Transportation. Yet JFAC legislators have opted for the lower number.

"The consequence of us picking too high a number and then having to make holdbacks to public schools or Medicaid is much more severe than to make those difficult choices up front," said Rupert Republican and JFAC co-chairman Sen. Dean Cameron.

"There are certain agencies that can't sustain those cuts," countered Moscow Democrat Rep. Shirley Ringo.

JFAC is expected to complete its budget setting by Friday, March 11.

Born in chains

In one of the oddest alliances of the 2011 legislative session, the Idaho Sheriffs' Association, American Civil Liberties Union and Right to Life of Idaho stood together to support a bill prohibiting the use of restraints on pregnant female prisoners during labor.

In 2009 an Arkansas female inmate, restrained at the ankles, suffered permanent hip injuries and successfully sued the state. In 2010 a non-violent offender in Washington successfully sued and won a $125,000 judgment. In both cases, the inmates said their constitutional rights were violated because restraints during labor were considered cruel and unusual punishment.

Hannah Brass, counsel for the ACLU of Idaho, said her organization has received several complaints from female prisoners in Idaho who refused to be identified.

"Many women are ashamed," said Brass. "They don't want their families to know, and they certainly don't want their children to know that they were born in chains."

Brass said her organization worked closely with the Sheriffs' Association to craft the new legislation. Idaho's Department of Correction already has similar procedures but Idaho's 44 counties operate with their own policies.

"If this becomes law, it would be taught to every new candidate coming through the new Idaho sheriffs school," said Michael Kane, legal adviser to the Sheriffs' Association.

Jason Herring, president of Right to Life of Idaho, usually finds himself at odds with the ACLU but not on this issue.

"Those in prison are often forgot by the outside world," Herring told the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee.

The committee of 12 Republicans and three Democrats passed the measure unanimously and forwarded the bill to the full House with a do-pass recommendation.

Possible expansion of Right-to-Farm

When Idaho passed its Right-to-Farm statute, the law was crafted to protect family farms from nuisance lawsuits. But for the better part of the past quarter century, family farms in Idaho have given way to conglomerates, and dairy farms in particular have yielded to confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Between 1991 and 2007, the number of Idaho dairies dropped from 1,952 to 648, yet the amount of milk produced in Idaho skyrocketed from 3 billion pounds up to 11 billion pounds.

In an attempt to protect CAFOs in the same way the law protects family farms, Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney was expected to introduce a bill this week that broadens the definitions of the Right-to-Farm Act and putting a further burden on any individual or group challenging a "recognized or permitted" agricultural facility. Denney's measure would require any opponent who loses the challenge to pay all legal fees.