Stephen Hartgen 01

Counties and cities are saying they need higher taxes from citizens. State agencies are struggling with Idaho’s robust population increase, as well as with prison overcrowding, roads and bridges infrastructure, land management and public schools funding.

Yep, it’s gonna be a bruised-elbows year in the upcoming Legislative session which gets underway on Jan. 6.

And there’s already plenty to be cautious about the economy. It won’t be easy to craft the Idaho budget this year, even without new benefits which are always on some people’s minds,

Wisely, Gov, Brad Little has already signaled to agencies to trim their budgets by 1-2 percent; with five months of the budget year gone, state revenues are up from last year, but barely ahead of projections. (+1.1 percent) Little is wise to initiate trims. (Division of Financial Management Dec. 2019 report.)

Looking ahead, legislators will need to fund Medicaid expansion, at an estimate of $40 million annually. Startup funding can be found from Millennium Fund monies, and there’s talk among legislators of reducing county health-care money once the state picks up the expansion tab.

That’s got county level folks hollering like mashed cats caught in a fan belt on a frosty Idaho morning. What? Give up revenue? You can’t be serious?

No big bailout for Idaho’s cities and counties is in the cards. There just isn’t the money. Want something big, new and spiffy? Ask your own citizens to pay for it? What, they said “No?” Jeeze, they’re feeling too taxed already. Ya think?

There also some pricey items on the state horizon. One is education funding, which despite numerous meetings, is looking pretty close to past practice and past formula allocations. Gov. Little has already declared education money to be “off limits” to any cuts, but not a peep of praise on that from the educrats. Entitlement thinking there is already “baked” into the money cake. Most Idaho teachers are already making more than the career ladder formula, but that won’t assuage the never-ending demands.

Then there’s prison reform. Idaho isn’t likely to give up on jailing criminals; “Lock ‘em up” is still a prevailing point of view. Prisoners sleeping on floor pads is ok with many citizens, who don’t want jails to be “Hilton Hotels.” Maybe criminals should have thought about that before they did the crime. Still, a better balance between sentencing norms and jail capacity is likely to get some attention.

Then there’s infrastructure. Idaho roads are generally in good shape, but vehicular traffic is rising 1-2 percent per year. Traffic improvements will be needed, despite NIMBY obstruction to specific projects.

There are some big projects ahead in this area, including a proposed third high-bridge crossing of the Snake River Canyon, west of Twin Falls, and a “beltway” loop around Twin Falls connecting the Hansen Bridge with Hwy. 93 to and from Nevada.

NIMBYers protest anything south of Twin Falls, but there’s nowhere else it can go. There are similar and also pricey projects needed throughout the state; that’s a consequence of growth.

Idaho has a long and well-deserved reputation for fiscal prudence when it comes to budgeting, and the makeup of the Legislature doesn’t suggest major surprises. Ds will still want more money for social services, like an expanded, full-time, taxpayer-paid kindergarten. But, again, they don’t propose any way to pay for this item except to take more from your wallets. So that’s a non-starter.

Idaho’s state budget has run 4 to 6 percent growth for several years now, and with population growth appearing to slow a bit to under 2 percent, now would be a good time to hold the reins on budgets generally. You don’t have to be Ben Franklin to see the benefits of fiscal restraint in public expenditures.

Nor do we have to be “Scrooge-y” to do this. Just prudent. Bend the cost curve down to match the revenue stream.  That’s what Gov. Little is planning, and wisely so. Little laid out some of his thinking at the annual Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference on Dec. 5. He called for prudence, careful budgeting and not spending money we don’t have. All good moves.

A lot will depend on how the state’s compensation and revenue projection committees shake out in early January; even without spend-it-all leadership, Ds will continue to “shoot the moon” for social spending, but prudent voices will likely otherwise prevail.

That’s a good thing. Good times are always followed by pull-backs; the wise shore up savings and reserves, just as Aesop Fables tell us from centuries ago. Sometimes, the best thing lawmakers can do is to say “No” to costly ideas. Leave more money in citizens’ pockets? Seems like a good plan.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chair of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.