Statehouse roundup, 2.2.24: Budget-setting in disarray after JFAC rebellion

The Legislature’s new budget-setting process grew increasingly muddled Friday after a bipartisan rebellion in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

In a series of orchestrated motions, a majority of JFAC members — nine Republicans and three Democrats — defied committee leadership and approved more than a dozen agency budgets that flouted a new appropriation process implemented this year by co-chairs Sen. C. Scott Grow and Rep. Wendy Horman.

Rather than separating an agency’s “maintenance” costs from new spending requests — as the Grow-Horman framework calls for — JFAC Friday passed bills that include agencies’ entire appropriation. Budgets advanced Friday include the Commission for Libraries and the Public Charter School Commission. 

“We went back to the way we have done budgets in the past,” Senate Minority Caucus Chair Janie Ward-Engelking explained after Friday’s meeting.

Senate Minority Caucus Chair Janie Ward Engelking, D-Boise

The revolt came after a delay in budget-setting as JFAC members wrestled with the new process. Historically, the powerful committee has appropriated each agency’s entire annual budget in a single bill. 

But Grow and Horman pushed to divide those spending requests into two parts: A “maintenance” budget, essentially a base budget that mirrors an agency’s prior year appropriation, followed by a second budget that individually addresses line-item requests, like new spending, replacement items and employee raises. 

Grow and Horman have argued the new process is meant to improve spending transparency and to make budget-setting more efficient. The Legislature often adjourns each session only after clearing a logjam of spending bills awaiting House and Senate approval. 

Others, including Gov. Brad Little, worry the new process will make it more difficult to get line items approved. In a Friday story detailing Little’s concerns, the Idaho Capital Sun noted, for example, that Little’s $200 million school facilities proposal is not included in a maintenance budget. 

JFAC Republicans already approved the maintenance budgets, last month directing $5.1 billion to state agencies in 10 budget bills that are awaiting final approval from the House and Senate. And the committee was set to start considering line-item requests Friday. 

Most JFAC members felt that maintenance-like expenses, such as replacement costs, employee raises and inflationary adjustments, were left out of the “maintenance” budgets, said Ward-Engelking, D-Boise. 

“If they’re being touted as maintenance budgets, they need to be maintenance budgets,” she said. “Everybody’s been trying to work through the chairs. It’s just, we weren’t making any headway.” 

Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle

Grow, a Republican from Eagle, was blindsided by the unfriendly motions. After the meeting, he told reporters that he didn’t know about them until half an hour before the meeting was scheduled to start. He joined a handful of JFAC’s hardline conservative members in opposing all of the budgets approved Friday. Horman, R-Idaho Falls, was absent from the committee Thursday and Friday. 

“The reason I voted ‘no’ on those today is because the original plan was to do maintenance budgets,” Grow said, noting that JFAC Republicans who approved the maintenance budgets last month must have changed their minds. 

Moving forward, the complete budgets approved Friday will compete with the existing maintenance budgets. The full House and full Senate could decide whether to approve one version or the other. 

“We’ll have to see how that goes,” Grow said.

JFAC members who voted in favor of Friday’s budget bills designed under the old framework were:

  • Sen. Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton.
  • Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls.
  • Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls.
  • Sen. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree.
  • Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise. 
  • Sen. Rick Just, D-Boise.
  • Rep. Matthew Bundy, R-Mountain Home.
  • Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg. 
  • Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby. 
  • Rep. James Petzke, R-Meridian. 
  • Rep. Clay Handy, R-Burley.
  • Substitute for Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise.

JFAC members who opposed the budgets designed under the old process were:

  • Senate co-chair C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle. 
  • Senate vice chair Carl Bjerke, R-Coeur d’Alene.
  • Sen. Ben Adams, R-Nampa.
  • Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle.
  • House vice chair Steve Miller, R-Fairfield.
  • Rep. Tina Lambert, R-Caldwell.
  • Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle.

Rewritten bill to ban ‘diversity statements’ surfaces

A new bill that would ban the use of “diversity statements” in higher education made its debut Friday.

The bill would outlaw diversity statements in hiring and admissions decisions — although State Board of Education policy already forbids colleges and universities from requiring diversity statements from job applicants.

“Hiring and admissions decisions at any public postsecondary educational institution in the state of Idaho shall be made on merit,” reads the bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Treg Bernt and Rep. James Petzke, both R-Meridian.

Bernt introduced a version of this bill in January, but said it was rewritten to incorporate “technical changes” that will bring the language in line with legislative staff guidelines. Specifically, the bill deletes references to gender identity, and rewrites the bill’s fiscal impact language. Bill sponsors now say the bill will have a “minimal impact” on the state’s general fund budget; originally, Bernt said the bill would have no effect on the budget.

The Senate State Affairs introduced the new bill Friday, meaning it could come back for a hearing at a later date.

Summer STEM program could lose funding

Lawmakers Friday advanced a proposed spending bill for the Idaho Commission for Libraries that didn’t include funding for a summer science program.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted to approve a $7.5 million libraries budget for the upcoming fiscal year without including $40,000 the agency requested to fund the Summer STEM Grants program.

The program offers up to 70 local libraries $500 grants to fund science, technology, engineering and mathematics education outreach events.

A state budget analyst last month told JFAC that the summer program previously was funded through the STEM Action Center, but officials there no longer wanted to fund the program through their own budget.

The Summer STEM program has been around since 2017 and it serves more than 51,000 kids each year, according to State Librarian Stephanie Bailey-White.

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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