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ID: Zero base

Butch Otter

Butch Otter

Last year, the first state of the state speech by new Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter included a roster of odds and ends, but some of the big stuff – from running sideways with the Statehouse renovation to wiping out the Department of Administration – wasn’t explicitly laid out; those things emerged later as people read the fine print in the budget address.

We may not know for a while yet whether that bit of history will recur, but Otter’s second SOS speech does seem a little more notable than the first. Although at times a little more ideological than the first – he made sure to get those quotes in from the Federalist Papers and from Ronald Reagan – what jumps out is some of the particularly practical stuff he included.

And atop that list is something that you’d think more administrators (especially conservative ones) would support but few have proposed: Zero-based budgeting, something we’ve long endorsed and rarely seen.

Otter skimmed through it quickly enough in his speech (his whole talk was relatively brief, under 40 minutes) that listeners unfamiliar with the idea may have missed it entirely. At present, most governments including state governments budget mostly on “base-plus” – that is, with rare exceptions, starting the budget process with existing spending, and then tack on additions from there. Existing spending doesn’t usually get a thorough look in the budgeting process, so that waste, overspending or even underspending rarely get properly addressed. “Zero-based budgeting” requires an item-by-item look at the whole budget, checking for need, efficiency and appropriate spending levels for everything. Because it is such a larg-scale effort, the idea usually is to break up something as large as a state government into pieces; Otter would divide state spending into six pieces, and rotate them over a six-year cycle. He would start the process with the 2010 fiscal year, which would mean the budget adopted by the 2009 legislative session. That would give budget planners the upcoming year to start to ramp up.

In arguing for ZBB over the years with various political and governmental people, we’ve encountered a lot of skepticism – it’s too massive, just not practical. It has been tried before in Idaho at least once, by Democratic Governor John Evans in the 70s, but it quickly bogged down as state agencies seemed if anything hostile to the idea, and the legislature showed little interest.

That could happen again. There are strong arguments for ZBB from assorted philosophical viewpoints: For people like Otter and like many legislators, it would be a tool to generate more efficiency and reduce waste; while for those across the spectrum, it could result in an affirmation that the post-ZBB government actually is sound, efficient and mostly waste-free. Part of the problem with getting ZBB passed, we’ve suspected, has been that both sides may be more afraid of the other side getting something useful to them, than of even achieving their own goals.

Otter showed signs in his speech of moving past some of that. While reinforcing his libertarian framework, he went out of his way to talk about a state government that’s providing better service, that is finding new ways to foster cooperation. He spoke favorably of a collection of new and expended government programs (mostly small in size, but significant anyway coming from him). He offered support for a local option tax proposal (significant too, even if it dies as usual in the tax committees). And he spoke near the launch of the speech of how “my thanks go to all those hardworking and dedicated [state] employees” – and the word “bureaucrat” never showed up once.

He made the point near the end that he and the legislators have just been getting to know each other, and he almost (it wasn’t explicit) seemed to acknowledge making some mistakes in dealing with them last year. He seems here to be charting a slightly different path from his traditional, and a path a little different than most of Idaho’s legislators are accustomed to. Otter will need all his skills on deck if he’s to pull them along with him.

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