BOISE — There were literally only two things of any real note happening at the Legislature on Tuesday and, true to form, both were scheduled at the same time.
In its first meeting of the year, the joint budget committee heard from Alex Adams, administrator of the Division of Financial Management, regarding the governor’s 2021-22 budget recommendations.
Shortly after he began his talk, the House State Affairs Committee introduced the first three bills of the 2021 session. All three deal with the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
Here are some highlights from the day:
9:30 A.M. — Adams started his presentation with an overview of how Idaho’s budget picture has changed since the Legislature adjourned last year.
At the time, the state expected to collect about $4.11 billion in revenue in fiscal ‘21. Lawmakers appropriated $4.06 billion, leaving an estimated ending balance of about $55 million.
Two months later, after the initial effects of the coronavirus pandemic were felt, updated revenue projections suggested the state could be looking at nearly a $400 million budget shortfall.
The dismal forecast prompted Gov. Brad Little to order a 5 percent budget cut for all state agencies, including public schools.
Fast forward to today, Adams said, and the state is looking at a potential $600 million surplus. Despite the pandemic, Idaho’s economy has been robust and revenue collections have been much stronger than anticipated. The state also saved more than $200 million from the 5 percent cut, and billions in federal coronavirus relief funds were used to offset another $200 million or so in general fund expenditures.
The bottom line is that Idaho’s 2021 revenue projection is higher today than it was before anyone even heard of COVID-19.
That’s something very few states can claim, Adams said. Based on figures from the Urban Institute, only 13 states saw year-over-year revenue growth between March and October of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, and no other state saw a higher increase than Idaho.
HIGHER EDUCATION INITIATIVES — Adams noted that Little 2022 budget recommendation includes $1 million to expand capacity in the state’s nurse training programs.
“The governor believes that having individuals trained in the state is key to keeping them here (after they graduate),” he said.
Lewis-Clark State College would receive $400,000, while the College of Southern Idaho, North Idaho College and College of Western Idaho community colleges would each receive $200,000.
The governor is also recommending that $13.5 million be pulled from the Higher Education Stabilization Fund — a “rainy day” savings account — to help the state’s four public colleges and universities offset the fiscal effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Because of disruptions of in-person attendance, dorm rentals, sporting events and other activities, Adams said, the institutions have all seen revenue declines. The $13.5 million is intended to help ease the impact.
The governor’s budget recommends that LCSC get $1.74 million of that amount. The University of Idaho would get $371,600, while Boise State and Idaho State would receive $4.5 million and $6.9 million, respectively.
Much of the money comes from interest the institutions receive on tuition revenues, Adams said. UI already collects that interest directly, without going through the higher education account, which is why its appropriation is so much lower.
10 A.M. — The Legislature invested more than $1 million in infrastructure upgrades this year, to ensure that people could watch committee hearings and floor activities remotely.
The bugs haven’t all been ironed out. The online feed from the House State Affairs Committee initially didn’t work at all. Then there was video, but no sound; then sound, but no picture.
10:18 A.M. — At last, there was sound and video — just in time for the committee to introduce a constitutional amendment giving the Legislature the power to call itself back into session.
Sponsored by Reps. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, and Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, the measure requires the House speaker and Senate president to convene a special legislative session “upon receipt of a joint written request of at least 60 percent of the membership of each house.”
The resolution doesn’t place any limits on the length of the special session or on the number of topics that could be considered.
“Yes, we thought of that. And no, we have no intention of doing what you suggest,” Harris said, in response to a question from Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise.
This was just a bill introduction hearing, so no public testimony was taken.
A two-thirds vote in the House and Senate would be needed to approve the amendment. It would then go to voters in the 2022 general election.
EMERGENCY DECLARATION I — Following Harris’ presentation, the second “balance of power” bill of the session was introduced.
Sponsored by Rep. Jason Monks, R-Nampa, the measure caps the length of any gubernatorial emergency declaration at a maximum of 30 days, unless the Legislature agrees to extend it. It also prohibits any such declaration from restricting “the right of Idahoans to work, provide for their families and otherwise contribute to the economy.”
“This legislation attempts to restore some of the balance that we need between the executive and legislative branches,” Monks said. “We beta-tested some of those (disaster emergency) laws last year. Realistically, it was the first time they were stress-tested, and this bill attempts to address some of the flaws we identified.”
The basic intent of the bill is to ensure that the Legislature doesn’t get cut out of the decision-making process, as happened last year.
The measure specifically prohibits the governor from altering or suspending any state law during a declared emergency. It also prohibits an emergency declaration from limiting or suspending any rights guaranteed in the U.S. or Idaho constitutions.
If the House and Senate approve the legislation, it would go to the governor for his signature. If it’s enacted into law, the current coronavirus emergency declaration would immediately end.
EMERGENCY DECLARATION II — Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, introduced a concurrent resolution to immediately end the coronavirus emergency.
Unlike Monks’ bill, which amends state law, Scott’s resolution wouldn’t require the governor’s approval.
“If this looks familiar, that’s because it’s very similar to the resolution the House passed (during the special session) in August,” she said. “Once this passes, the emergency declaration would end immediately. It can’t be vetoed.”
In discussions with reporters Monday, Alex Adams said ending the coronavirus emergency order could eliminate certain federal matching funds the state receives to deal with the pandemic. It could also affect federal matching dollars that flow to cities and counties, although he wasn’t positive about that.
Scott briefly touched on that issue in the fiscal note, which says “the resolution would impact FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funding and a few other national programs. This would have a positive impact to the federal budget.”
Spence is the Tribune's political reporter. He may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 791-9168.