By STEVE CAMERON
Idaho has more money in hand than economists expected.
A lot more money, in fact.
Gov. Butch Otter’s office released figures on Friday that should make conservatives smile: year-long revenues through the end of the fiscal year that came in at $93 million over projections, and additions to the “rainy day account” that pushed that total to $318.7 million.
You’d expect North Idaho legislators to be excited by such a fiscal windfall. Not only did they balance the state budget during the 2017 session, but they managed to leave a fat pot of money for future expenses.
Several legislators from Kootenai County admitted having so much extra money was good news, and it proved Idaho’s conservative approach to managing finances has been proven successful. But they also suggested there’s such a thing as being “too conservative,” and they believe Otter has been guilty of it.
State Sens. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene and Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, along with Reps. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, and Eric Redman, R-Athol, unanimously criticized Otter for pinching too many pennies — specifically with his veto of the bill that would have repealed the state’s grocery tax.
Idaho charges a 6 percent tax on groceries, and of its border states, only Utah has a grocery tax.
“There are a lot of Idaho border communities getting hit by this tax,” Barbieri said. “Just look around our region. People in Post Falls have every reason to shop in Spokane, and that’s business gone.”
“It’s obviously our goal to spend less than we take in,” Vick said. “That’s acting conservatively and prudently with our money.
“But that doesn’t mean you just keep adding to state funds and ignoring logical expenditures that are clearly in the interest of taxpayers — and that’s exactly what happened with the grocery repeal bill.”
Vick actually has another dog in this fight.
Otter vetoed the grocery tax repeal after the Legislature had adjourned, removing the chance of an override.
Vick introduced a bill two years ago that would have forced any governor to call the Legislature back into session if the speaker of the house and the president pro tem of the Senate formally requested it in cases where one or more bills were passed with two-thirds or more majority in both chambers.
Vick’s bill was passed unanimously in the Senate, but got caught in a political windstorm before it could be considered in the House.
“I’m definitely bringing it back in this next session,” Vick said, “and I have verbal assurances from the House leadership that it will be debated there.”
The general feeling among local legislators that keeping a leash on spending — while funding issues that benefit state residents — perhaps was best summed up by Souza.
“Look, I’m thrilled that our economy is robust, and that people want to move into the state,” Souza said. “And I’m a conservative who doesn’t want to spend more than we take in.
“But we’re in a good financial position right now. Maybe it’s time to spend some money if it’s going to do some good.
“In the case of the grocery tax repeal, we knew — even at the beginning of session before the big jump in revenue became clear — that the bill was affordable. Easily affordable.
“There are so many border communities that feel the impact. You can put a cost on this bill ($76 million), but the reality is that a lot of the money is going to funnel right back to Idaho. So the cost was really far less than what the governor claimed we would have to spend.”
Redman seemed to be speaking for this group of Kootenai County legislators when he made his priorities clear.
“(Balancing the budget) is probably the most important factor for a state like ours,” Redman said. “Still, we need to distribute the money that we do have when the situation calls for it. We have excess funds.
“The governor could have signed the grocery repeal tax and nobody would have said we aren’t conservative.”