Idaho has about $3.5 billion in its general fund.

That money covers everything from kindergarten classes to graduate studies; from the Idaho State Police to the state prisons, and from state offices to health care for the poor.

Even with a healthy economy generating tax revenues, there is not all that much room to spare.

State agency requests for next year's budget total about $3.7 billion - and much of that reflects the costs of delivering services to a growing population and rising inflation.

After scrutiny from Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's budget shop and then the Legislature, spending levels will be aligned to match the amount of tax dollars available.

So imagine how this picture would change if someone blows a 10 percent or even a 25 percent hole in the budget.

Just such a scenario is being painted in the Idaho Republican primary campaign for governor.

As the Spokesman-Review's Betsy Russell reported last weekend, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy looked over what kinds of tax cuts the candidates are promising and attached a price tag to them.

Here are the results:

  • Congressman Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, would replace a seven-tier income tax system - with rates progressing between 1.6 percent and 7.4 percent - with a flat 5 percent individual income and corporate tax rate.

That would pull $538 million out of the budget.

Labrador's plan to slice the 6 percent sales tax to 5 percent would cost another $267 million.

Removing the new 5 percent sales tax from groceries would reduce state revenues by another $66 million.

Labrador's total comes to $871 million.

If you're in the top 1 percent, this package would deliver an average $20,550 in tax savings. But if you are part of the bottom 20 percent, the Idaho Center says you can expect to get about $80.

  • Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist would drop Idaho's top individual and corporate income tax rates down to 5 percent, at a cost of $622 million.

He'd further reduce the property taxes businesses pay on equipment by about $9 million. Although he does not alter the 6 percent sales tax rate, Ahlquist supports lifting the standard 6 percent tax on groceries, which diverts another $79 million from the state treasury.

Ahlquist's total comes in at $704 million.

For Idaho's top 1 percent, Ahlquist is promising an average tax break of $19,070. For the bottom 20 percent, it pencils out to an average $10.

  • Lt. Gov. Brad Little takes his time - about 12 years - to reduce the top tax rate from 7.4 percent to 6.15 percent. Each 0.1 percent cut in the rate would cost about $28 million - and Little says there has to be enough money to pay public education's bills first. Presumably if another recession hits, all bets are off.

Nonetheless, over time Little's plan adds up to skimming $350 million from a state budget rather than hiring more teachers or holding the line on college tuition increases. Add to that $79 million if the sales tax comes off groceries plus the $9 million personal property tax cut Little supports.

Fully implemented, Little's package would provide the top 1 percent with an average $9,560 tax break. The bottom 20 percent can expect $10.

Unlike the federal government, Idaho operates under a constitutional ban on deficit spending. So how will these gubernatorial hopefuls balance the books?

If they intend to compensate for the lower rates by lifting the dozens of loopholes in the state tax code, good luck. As Russell notes, that's been tried several times without much success. There are more than $1 billion worth of exemptions to the state sales tax alone - and every time someone gets close to repealing even one, a battalion of lobbyists gets in the way.

Siphon off that much money and you'll be left with cuts across the board. Education, which takes more than half of the state budget, will not be spared. It means fewer teachers, more crowded classrooms and local patrons taking on as much property tax burden as they can stand to make up some of the difference.

The governor who presides over budget shortfalls decides where to hold back spending - and the public will hold him personally responsible. If Ahlquist, Labrador and Little don't realize it now, they soon will.

All of which leaves you to wonder: Is this a slogan masquerading as policy? Or are these three simply telling the voters to trust them? - M.T.


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