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A Seat in the House

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Budget shortfalls will make for difficult decisions this legislative session

Following each election the Idaho legislature convenes an organizational meeting of members for the purpose of electing members to leadership positions and assigning members to the various committees.

The organization session of the upcoming 60th legislature was held in Boise on December 4. The majority party (Republican) elected the same leadership team that held those positions in the last legislative session in both the Senate and the House. The minority party (Democrat) replaced all of their leadership positions in the House and changed the Assistant Minority Leader and Minority Caucus Chairman positions in the Senate. The majority and minority leadership of both houses and the members of the legislative committees can be found on the Idaho legislative website at www.legislature.idaho.gov.

As I requested of House leadership, I continue serving on the same committees as before. These are: a) Joint Finance and Appropriations b) Environment, Energy and Technology and c) Resources and Conservation. I will also continue as co-Chairman of the Interim Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology and will continue as one of Idaho’s delegates to the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. I will also continue to represent Idaho on the National Conference of State Legislators Advisory Committee on Energy.

The first session of Idaho’s 60th legislature will commence on January 12, 2009. The first major event of the session will be Governor Otter’s State of the State Address and his budget recommendation for the legislature to consider for fiscal year 2010.

I have stated in recent articles that it is going to be difficult to establish a budget for the next fiscal year because of the anticipated decrease in state revenue. Quoting Governor Otter, “We’re going from what’s nice to what’s necessary.”

As we get closer to the next session the economy continues to worsen and the Governor continues to take action to keep the state fiscally sound. We are also getting more specific messages from the Governor in terms of what he sees as necessary to maintain a balanced budget for FY 2010.

Governor Otter recently requested state agencies to immediately increase their FY 2009 (current fiscal year) budget reduction (holdback) another 3 percent over the 1 percent already requested for a total 4 percent reduction in current spending. He is also requesting that the agencies hold in reserve an additional 2 percent in the event that the economy continues to worsen and revenues continue to come in less than estimated. It is becoming more likely that he will have to request the additional 2 percent be held back before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2009.

In addition to the cutbacks for this year we are beginning to receive signals from the Governor that he will be recommending an additional 6 percent reduction in the fiscal year 2010 budget. In summary this means that the FY 2010 budget recommendation from the Governor in his January 12 presentation will be at least 10 percent lower than that approved for the current fiscal year.

This will mean major reductions in all agencies, including public schools and the entitlement programs funded by the Department of Health and Welfare. I am already receiving expressions of concern by citizens affected by the current and proposed reductions in funding.

My response has to be that we: 1) Prioritize the programs in terms of the most needed and determine what programs could be eliminated with minimum impact 2) Identify what actions each agency can take to make their operation more efficient and 3) Identify and eliminate any abuses of program funding.

Some argue that the legislature should consider raising taxes to avoid the budget cuts; however, because of the adverse economic condition many Idahoans are experiencing, there is not much support among legislators to approve an increase in taxes.

There is one exception, however, and that is a need to increase funding for the Idaho Department of Transportation. The condition of Idaho’s highway system is a major concern and the Governor is convinced that an increase in funding is needed immediately to prevent major deterioration of the highway system and major increases in costs in the long term that could be avoided by taking action now.

The Governor will be presenting a plan for the legislature to consider for transportation funding that will require cuts in some areas of transportation and increases in others.

In general he will be proposing a five year plan that will recommend a reduction in the Department’s administration costs and at the same time recommend a revenue increase by raising the fuel tax and registration fees in annual increments over the next five years. He is also expected to recommend a tax on rental cars and elimination of the ethanol exemption on the fuel tax.

In conjunction with the proposed revenue increase, Governor Otter is also expected to recommend the following actions for “improving Idaho’s Transportation System:”

Set up a Governor’s task force during the summer of 2009 to study the validity and perceived inequities of the Idaho Truck Registration System and all other truck related questions on permits, weights, etc.

Request that the Idaho Tax Commission set up a system to track the sales of all tires, auto parts and auto sales starting in year one. (This may be for the purpose of compiling data to support a proposal that sales tax generated from these purchases be designated for highway funding instead of going to general funds as is done presently.)

Request that the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation show how the 3 percent (4.7 million dollars) of fuel tax revenue is spent and identify dedicated fund sources to replace this funding.

Further study the fuel tax system looking at topics such as non-fuel taxed vehicles (i.e. hybrid vehicles) and a vehicle miles tax. (The issue is that hybrid vehicles use the same highway system, but generate less fuel tax because they don’t use as much gasoline or diesel fuel that is taxed.)

The transportation funding recommendation is going to be a major issue before the legislature. I believe most of the legislators recognize that there is a major highway funding problem but there is a difference of opinion in how we address the problem, both in the timing (whether it should be implemented this year) and the size of any revenue increase.

I will keep the readers informed of the progress of the transportation funding issue, but would also like input from our readers on what action they think should be taken on the funding problem.

I can be reached at my home phone of (208) 265-0123 or by mail at P.O. Box 112, Dover, Idaho 83825. After the session begins I can be reached in Boise by phone at 1-800-626-0471 or by e mail at [email protected] I can also be reached by regular mail at P.O. Box 83720, Boise, Idaho 83720-0038.

I look forward to hearing from you and thanks for reading! George

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Rep. George Eskridge Rep. George Eskridge the Republican Representative for District 1 in Idaho’s House, George Eskridge can be reached at 208-265-0123 or write PO Box 112, Dover, ID 83825

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