Legislative update

Concerns over the 2024 Legislature’s budget-making process

By Rep. Mark Sauter
Reader Contributor

Greetings. I hope all is well. We finished the fifth week of the session on Feb. 9, and I’m concerned about the way this session is progressing. There have been changes to our state budget system that have yet to play out, and mid-session changes to the leadership team that don’t typically happen. There are some strong differences of opinion among the Republicans as well. Some are hoping the change in leadership will help to heal some of the divisions. 

Rep. Mark Sauter. File photo.

Developing and adopting a state budget is the constitutional duty of the Legislature. Last week we started voting on a new style of appropriations bill. In the past, these bills were agency specific and generally included personnel; benefits; contracts; replacement equipment; carry forward funds; non-discretionary spending (differences in the costs of doing business, such as the number of students for the student funding formula, for example); salary adjustments; cost of living adjustments; budget shortfalls; and new equipment or agency functions. 

It was the job of those in the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC) to sift through the agency budget requests and apply conservative budgeting principles. Not all agency requests were approved. The JFAC bills — more than 100 of them — were then sent to the House and Senate for debate and confirmation votes. Some of the bills were sent back for more trimming and adjustments. 

The agency budgets are again being reviewed by JFAC, but this time the JFAC co-chairs have done considerable preliminary work, redefined what it means to fund agencies and decided to split the budgets into two bills. 

Budget decisions are policy decisions. The co-chairs say the first bills are bare-bones budgets — what’s needed to “keep the lights on” is how they are being presented — while the second bills will reportedly encompass the rest of the budget request. The co-chairs have also decided what the bare-bones budgets will not include: replacement equipment, non-discretionary costs, carry forward funds, new equipment and functions. The bare-bones budgets will not include the full cost of living employee wage adjustments, either. 

We’ve been told the second budgets will be developed and presented sometime before the Legislature adjourns. 

Another change to our budgeting process is how items are bundled together. Previously, most agency budgets were a single bill. Legislators knew that they were generally voting on a complete agency budget. This year, for example, the Idaho Department of Correction, the Department of Juvenile Corrections and the Idaho State Police have been bundled together. 

Last year this was three separate processes with three separate presentations and debates. This year the omnibus bill is one “up or down” vote for a half billion dollars in spending for “keeping the lights on” with the above-mentioned exclusions. The “drill-down” possibilities for concerned legislators during a bill debate are very limited by the bill carriers when they advise, “The missing funding will be before you in another bill, later in the session.” 

It has not yet been explained how the second bills will be presented, whether they will be bundled with other agencies or carried separately, and whether the second bills will be required to be passed so an agency will have a complete budget. 

Many legislators question the purpose of the “keep the lights on” budgets if they don’t really do that. Will passing these budgets be considered the end of the Legislatures’ constitutional responsibility for budget making? There are concerns that if there is no requirement for the “second budgets,” will the foregone money from the second budgets then be used for property tax relief or school choice tax credits (or both) in an election year? The JFAC co-chairs have said there should be no concerns. 

I remain concerned and skeptical of the JFAC changes thrust upon us. Basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Don’t confuse activity with progress.” I prefer more votes on budget decisions, not less. Legislators and the public have the same access to all state budget information this year as last. The difference is that this year, it appears, we will have fewer opportunities to vote on budgets. 

I will return to District 1 for meet-and-greets on Feb. 17. Please see the ad in this week’s Reader for places and times. Thoughts? Feedback? Concerns? Email me at [email protected].

Rep. Mark Sauter is a Republican legislator representing District 1A. He serves on the Agricultural Affairs; Education; and Judiciary, Rules and Administration committees.

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