Next year’s Republican gubernatorial primary election may come down to what Idahoans think about state government in general.
Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist, one of three Republicans vying for the GOP nomination, would be fine with voters thinking that state government is a black hole for taxpayer dollars and “establishment” politicians are a bunch of liberal-minded nincompoops. He’s telling us that he will trim $100 million in wasteful spending, and do it within his first 100 days of taking office.
The co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee – Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint and Rep. Maxine Bell of Rupert – are not impressed with Ahlquist’s campaign promise.
“As an intelligent voter who happens to know a little bit about this budget, I think it’s campaign rhetoric,” Keough said. “That’s sad, because I think this particular candidate is smarter than that.”
Bell, who has spent most of her 29-year career on the budget-writing committee, said education would take a big hit under Ahlquist’s plan.
“You can’t cut that amount without going into education, which represents about 48 percent of the budget,” Bell said. “So, if you’re cutting $100 million from the budget, then you’re taking $48 million from K-12.”
Not surprisingly, Ahlquist has a different perspective than the JFAC co-chairs – and one you might expect to see from a business board room. “We are talking about $100 million of a $3.5 billion budget, which is around only 3 percent of the total budget,” he says.
Ahlquist told the Associated Press that state government should run more efficiently without wasteful spending. “If you don’t have the culture of excellence where you demand excellence, mediocrity seeps in.”
Logistically, getting a $100 million cut in his first 100 days is the easy part. He could propose it in January, the Legislature would approve it three months later, and his campaign promise would be kept. The tough part would be getting this by skeptical legislators. Keough and Bell and the rest of JFAC generally have been supportive of Gov. Butch Otter’s budgets over his three terms in office – through good times and bad. The co-chairs think the budget overall is practical and conservative.
“There is a certain level of services that Idahoans expect from their state government,” Keough said. “Even the most conservative Idahoan will at some point demand a service from their state government and expect that it will be delivered.”
Bell says that because Idaho is a poor state financially, legislators on her committee end up saying “no” to a lot of sound budget requests. During the economic downturn within the last decade, she said, legislators did everything they could to keep the schools open and prisons operating. Meanwhile, the state fell behind in other areas, including infrastructural needs.
“Is there $100 million in waste? I’d like to think not. Every year, the budget is gone through with a fine-tooth comb. Through the years, this governor has exercised zero-based budgeting with the agencies. It’s my experience that the money we’re spending is needed,” she said.
“If you talk with parents of fourth-graders, I don’t think they will say that the K-12 budget is liberal,” Bell said. “Talk to the people who are lined up to learn skills needed for the new jobs and are waiting for the chance to improve their technical skills. I don’t think they will tell you that the budget is liberal. If you talk with a state policeman, he would feel a lot better if he could keep troopers on the highways from midnight to 4 a.m., and we can’t do that now.”
Ahlquist has identified three areas that are prime for cutting – shifting the state employee health insurance plan to self-funding, consolidating and competitively bidding state broadband services and pressing for more competition to find savings on state infrastructure investments.
“Just on the self-funding state employee insurance alone … the change could save the state $60.6 million over the first three years, and then $16 million annually thereafter,” Ahlquist said. “Many more examples will be found with a fresh approach and new ideas.”
He could face some difficulties selling those “new ideas” to lawmakers, who often are locked into “old ways” of doing things. But at the moment, Ahlquist has other challenges – the first of which is getting elected.