Writings and observations

When Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter delivered his budget a couple of weeks ago, he told the legislature that he proposed some major changes in some smaller agencies. The big raw dollar cuts may have come in places like public schools and colleges and universities, but he proposed what amounted to elimination of a number of others.

Operations of the Department of Parks and Recreation, he said, should be moved to the Department of Lands and some registration activities to the Department of Fish & Game.

And he proposed a “Four‐year phase out of General Fund” – meaning that money other other than state funds would have to be found to maintain current operations – for Idaho Public Television, the Human Rights Commission, the Hispanic Commission, the Independent Living Council, the Developmental Disabilities Council, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Council and the Digital Learning Academy.

He also said, as he has in budget matters before, that he’s open to legislative alternatives. Two weeks on, looks like he’ll have to be open to alternatives: Most of those slash-outs themselves look headed to the trash heap. Some of that is because these programs turn out to have actual supporters around the state. But part of it is because someone in the Otter Administration seems not to have done their homework.

The Department of Parks & Recreation, for example, has reasons for existence that can’t simply be reorganized away. It was created in the early 60’s to meet the terms of a massive gift to the state by the Harriman family – the Harriman park in Fremont County, possibly the finest of the state parks. The Harrimans insisted on a specific kind of professional management of the land, and Governor Robert Smylie rammed through the new parks department to meet the terms. The state has gotten other gifts through the years too under the assumption that a professional parks department – not a lands department, which has a valid but different sort of mission – would take charge of them. Remove the parks department, and the Harriman state park is put into risk.

After much discussion of all this, Otter on Friday appears to have backed off the proposal, instead settling for a package of other parks-related cuts and fundraising. He acknowledged the mistake, explicitly: “The whole idea that we were going to eliminate the parks department was dead wrong.”

Others will be hard to do away with, too.

In a state as far-flung as Idaho, public television has a real constituency. While some legislators have over the years had squabbles with “government television,” more than a few legislators like it, not least because it provides a central electronic link with legislative sessions and coverage and their constituents.

In many cases, it is conservative rural legislators most ready to cut budgets. In this case, as the Associated Press notes, “the 45-year-old network would likely trim broadcasts that now reach 300,000 people weekly to only Idaho’s most populous areas, as 41 of 42 translators that broadcast seven channels to far-flung regions are dismantled . . . Moscow and Pocatello studios would be shuttered; equipment that broadcasts the Idaho Legislature would go dark.”

That AP report, you’ll notes, appeared in the Washington Post; and a slash of this magnitude of Idaho Public Television would be national news, and not the kind Idaho should want as it tries to attract outside money and business.

A similar point applies to the Human Rights Commission, which works in an area where Idaho’s reputation – many around the country still know it (or think they do) best as a haven for Aryans – is shakiest. The Twin Falls Times News summarized it neatly in an editorial: “We can see the headlines across the country now: ‘Idaho joins Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi in nixing rights commission.’” The idea of that has to seriously worry Idaho business leaders, and those tasked with encouraging them to come to the Gem State.

Now: Suppose massive efforts save the parks department, public television and the rights commission. And then suppose the Hispanic Commission is nonetheless axed. How do you think that will look?

The associated factor many legislators may be considering here, as well, is that these agencies (even parks) are tiny slivers of the state budget – even total wipeouts do only very, very little to balance the budget. Keep them all, and the admittedly serious revenue problem really isn’t very much worse.

Of course, there will remain the big question of: What do you cut? Since revenue increases are, this being Idaho, not on the table . . .

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