Talk about a mess. The people running the Great State of Idaho are about to meet in Boise next month and draft a budget that covers everything from public schools to colleges and universities to health care.

There's just one hitch: Nobody knows how much money they will have to spend.

Month after month, tax revenues have been falling short. It happened again in November when the state took in $16 million less than expected.

In all the state is $63 million behind what legislators projected at this point in the year. Maybe the shortfall is an illusion; maybe it's not. It won't be clear until state income tax returns are filed in April - well after the Legislature is supposed to have drafted a spending blueprint and adjourned for the year.

So the Legislature - along with Brad Little, who will be beginning his gubernatorial term - will have to decide whether to once again trim back the state's commitment to education on an artificially low revenue estimate - only to be proven wrong by spring.

Or bet on more money coming in - and leave Little to order spending holdbacks if the tax dollars fail to materialize.

Much of which might have been avoided.

That is if the GOP leadership had listened to Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston.

Earlier this year, when he was chairman of the Senate tax committee, Johnson raised all kinds of red flags about what was going on.

For instance, he questioned his colleagues' rush to judgment.

On Dec. 22, President Donald Trump signed the massive federal income tax bill into law.

Less than 70 days later, GOP lawmakers also cut Idaho income taxes - following the standard practice of synchronizing Idaho's definition of taxable income with the federal system.

Typically, it takes a year for Idaho to fully understand how complying with the IRS code will affect its own revenues. This time, the federal changes were so profound it might take two or three years to figure out the effects.

Among them were the elimination of personal deductions, the doubling of the standard exemption and more lucrative breaks for partnerships.

Not only did the system create winners and losers - families with more children faced a tax increase while smaller families might reap bigger tax savings.

Throw in a larger child care credit to reduce the hit on larger families and the projected $104.5 million fiscal impact statement might not be reliable.

To this day, it's unclear who will gain or lose. It's believed employees who did not adjust their income tax withholding are underpaying and will face a tax bill on April 15.

Considering state projected corporate and sales tax collections are up, that makes sense. But who's to say how much more tax individuals will fork over. It all depends on who is not having enough tax withheld from his paycheck.

Don't discount the possibility that conservative corporate accountants have over-estimated their tax bills and will draw even more money out of the state's coffers when they collect a refund later in the year.

Johnson sought a more balanced measure. The proposal he presented to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee had a smaller price tag - about $95.9 million.

It was more cautious about reducing income tax rates. Johnson proposed a 0.3 percent rate cut vs. the 0.475 percent GOP leaders pursued.

And it decoupled parts of the state tax code from the federal provisions, thereby protecting Idaho's larger families. Ironically, that would have helped other corners of the state more than Johnson's constituents in Nez Perce and Lewis counties.

Johnson also saved money by not extending an unnecessarily generous break to smaller businesses.

He urged House members to consider his alternative to a "tax policy that picks winners and losers, and that isn't stable." He was wasting his breath. The House committee rejected the plan.

When the final tax cut package made it to the Senate floor, Johnson was among three Republicans to vote against it. The others were former Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who was co-chairwoman of the Legislature's budget-writing committee, and former Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, who as Johnson's predecessor as Senate tax committee chairman famously blocked any tax cut until teachers got paid more.

Earlier this month, Johnson lost not only his tax committee chairmanship, but his seat on the tax committee itself. Senate leadership transferred him over to the budget committee, where he'll be a vice-chairman.

Johnson told the Tribune's William L. Spence he "wasn't expecting that."

The senior Democrat on the tax committee, Sen. Grant Burgoyne of Boise, suspects the move reflects the Senate's capitulation to House Republicans on tax cuts.

In other words, the one Republican state senator who was right about the tax bill just got yanked off the tax committee.

In what universe does that make any sense? - M.T.

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