Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter came out swinging at the beginning of this year's legislative season, suggesting the move of entire state agencies off the general fund dole. But in just three weeks, two of the agencies slated for full submersion have managed to keep their heads above water.
Otter and Nancy Merrill, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, announced last week that rather than "cut" the Idaho Department of Parks and Rec and move parklands to the Department of Lands, the state could cut $4.5 million, lay off 25 employees and raise fees. But while the Parks Department may be saved, there are still more than half a dozen agencies slated for a four-year phase-out from state funds: The list includes Idaho Public Television, the Idaho Human Rights Commission, the Independent Living Council, the Developmental Disabilities Council, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, the Hispanic Commission, and the Digital Learning Academy.
The combined savings for taking these agencies out of the system? It's a paltry $2.4 million by the fourth year. But at least one of them appears to have found a way out from under the guillotine so far.
Marc Johnson, a lobbyist and once chief of staff to former Gov. Cecil Andrus, orchestrated an open letter signed by dozens of bipartisan religious and human rights leaders decrying the demise of the Human Rights Commission. The document outlined the significant gains the commission has made in a state that has historically dealt with racism, particularly in North Idaho, where the Aryan Nations once thrived.
"When the governor made his proposal, I had a number of people ask me, or express concern to me, that this seemed like a really tough position to put the Human Rights Commission in. I said, 'Let's see if we can't reach out to some of them, and bring back to the Legislature how important we think this is,'" Johnson said. There's some hope on the horizon for the HRC, with a plan to move the agency to the Department of Labor, but there are details to finalize before that can happen.
These agency reductions are all a part of Otter's "efficiencies" mantra, through which he's cutting services for marginalized Idahoans.
Pablo Yzquierdo, a former commissioner on the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, also spoke out against the governor's strategy. The staff at Hispanic Affairs is down to three--all of whom now face furlough days. While Yzquierdo couldn't speak for the commission, he did say: "I think that cutting this commission has little to do with the budget. I realize that the state has a shortfall on taxes, but all these commissions add up to less than 1 percent. The Hispanic Commission only gets $100,000 a year from the state. I think it has more to do with this Libertarian ideology. I don't think anybody wants big government. I certainly don't, but I think that chopping down certain things like the Human Rights Commission, which has 40 years of work in the state ... I think the governor is out of step. I think it's wrong."
Last week, the directors of some agencies slated for elimination filed into the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to plead their cases.
When BW called Steven Snow, executive director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Council, Unda' the Rotunda was routed through a human interpreter service that allows the deaf to use a type of video telephone. What seemed a bit strange at first ultimately highlighted the need for these agencies in Idaho. According to Snow, the agency's very existence is at risk.
"The federal money in relation to deaf and hard of hearing is very minuscule. We don't have the qualifications to get the different type of money. Most of the money requires a state match ... so basically there's no money by the second year. And we can't function on 50 percent of our budget. And that means we're probably going to have to close down," Snow said, through the interpreter.
Perhaps the most precarious organization is that of the State Independent Living Council and the statewide network it supports. Kelly Buckland, director of the National Independent Living Council and former director of Idaho's agency, is skeptical of Otter's plan.
"I think it's very shortsighted. Some of the policy recommendations that have come out of [the council] have actually saved the state millions of dollars. Cutting something that will only save a few thousand dollars is shortsighted because in the long run, it's going to cost the state money."
The state has three Independent Living Centers: in Boise, Pocatello and Moscow. While these organizations don't directly rely on the SILC, they can't exist without it, per federal regulations. If SILC fails, these centers and 10 offices around the state are gone, contributing to more unemployment and leaving Idaho's disabled at risk.
"The SILC, without state funding, the federal funding will not allow for any resource funding development. We can't get more federal funding with federal dollars. In effect, if the SILC went away, I'm not sure where our money would come from," said Dean Nielson, of Life Inc. in Pocatello.