Financial experts offer optimistic budget outlook

Lawmakers received a dose of good economic news Thursday during their final financial briefing before the 2017 legislative session kicks off.

Financial analysts predicted moderate economic growth for Idaho during a daylong meeting of the Legislature’s Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee.

Derek Santos, the state’s chief economist, described a train moving down the tracks as an analogy for the financial relationship between Idaho and the country.

“The U.S. economy should continue growing,” Santos said. “Idaho is going to go down the tracks too, about the same speed as the U.S. economy — moderate growth over the next few years.”

Even though the legislative session doesn’t kick off until Monday, the Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee’s work is closely watched because it jumpstarts the budget-setting process.

Next week, committee members will develop a revenue forecast for legislative budget writers. The forecast establishes the amount of money available for programs — including public schools, the state’s largest budget, accounting for 48 percent of general fund spending.

State budget analysts, labor officials, university experts and banking representatives painted a fairly optimistic picture of Idaho’s short-term economic prospects. Unemployment is down, jobs creation is up, wages are growing and housing starts are expected to accelerate over the next few years, Santos and others said.

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Meanwhile, state revenues beat overall projections through the first five months of Idaho’s 2016-17 budget year by $29.8 million, despite a slide in November.

If current trends hold, lawmakers would end the budget year with almost $100 million more on hand than they had anticipated, said Keith Bybee, a state budget and policy analyst.

“Right now, we have an estimated ending balance of $139 million, a difference of $92 million from where we thought we would be when the Legislature adjourned (in 2016),” Bybee said.

State officials will release updated economic and revenue figures Monday, in conjunction with Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State address.