Friday, twenty of us from the House and Senate met at 7 am on the 4th floor in a brand new conference room made for 20. This was the second of our early morning pre-meetings for the budget committee. We will have many more in the weeks ahead. We do not vote here since we are supposed to make public policy in the open, but we do ask questions and discuss consequences. Reporters come but the TV cameras are not there to watch us as we struggle to ask questions and come to grips with the language and process that often hides underlying agendas and grim hidden consequences.
Friday on a 4 to 16 vote those state agencies that the Governor had not already cut by at least 7% were put on the chopping block to be sure their total cut equaled at least 7%. A few like Public Education were, in a sort of slight of hand, given our last special chunks of reserves or stimulus money to make up for the cuts and to leave them "whole" or, for now, unharmed.
If you were a fly on a wall in that room or if you were listening on the internet as we went downstairs and voted on the cuts or holdbacks Friday you needed to listen for the word "permanent" or the word "ongoing" since this means something very different from a cut that is "one time." You can imagine the difference. What we did Friday the motion makers called "permanent" meaning that soon, when we start working on the 2011 budgets, the starting numbers or "base" will be a dire one. The 2011 budget will begin at the eviscerated level of funding already at least 7% below where it was in 2009.
So, so soon when we start voting to set the coming year's budgets, we will have no stimulus money and next to no reserves and, because what we will call the "base" already hides a huge cut, we will be making cuts on top of cuts. And worse, should we vote to eliminate a tax exemption, delay the grocery credit, raise beer or wine taxes or put in place a one time income tax surcharge enabling us to restore money to a budget, there is a conservative anti-government faction that can rejoice at the idea that we will have to ask for what looks like a budget "increase" just to bring an agency back up to the funding level it was at before the economic crisis.
This legislature does not increase budgets or staff positions lightly. It will be a struggle now just to put all this back together now that we have torn it apart.
You might say that for some law makers this recent vote is a dream come true. They have, in one year, undone decades or even a century of progress creating mental health and substance abuse programs, agencies to remove barriers in the lives of people with disabilities, entities that ensure that our drinking water is clean and our air is not toxic. How we put it all back together for the people of Idaho is anyone's guess.