BOISE -- We're a long way from the day when all that was needed to meet projected budget cuts was hold a few positions open and reduce travel costs.
That was the response Idaho agencies gave back in 2008, when asked how they would handle a potential general fund holdback of 2 percent to 4 percent.
Some said they might resort to employee furloughs, but there was almost no talk of permanent layoffs or program eliminations. Most indicated they would "look for efficiencies," or postpone capital replacements and maintenance needs. Everyone would just pitch in and work a little harder.
Those easy solutions are now all but gone. Asked recently how they would handle another 5 percent reduction, the agency responses were much more severe. Several said they've run out of options. After three years of deeper and deeper budget cuts, they said they can't lose any more without compromising their statutory and constitutional responsibilities.
Col. Jerry Russell, director of the Idaho State Police, said he believes his agency "is already failing in its moral obligation to the citizens of Idaho."
Further budget cuts would extend that to the statutory obligations, he said.
For example, based on Idaho's population, vehicle miles traveled and other data, Russell said, a recent analysis indicated ISP "needed an increase of more than 80 troopers to meet minimal public safety standards and expectations. Yet ISP is faced with reducing trooper numbers further in fiscal 2012."
Similarly, ISP detectives open an average of 12 to 15 new investigations each year, he said. "The majority of these target mid- to upper-level drug trafficking organizations. The program is currently holding six of 43 detective positions open to meeting ongoing holdbacks. This (5 percent) reduction would require holding open four more positions."
Dan Goicoechea, chief of staff for State Controller Donna Jones, said that office "cannot sustain any cuts beyond the budget we presented in January. I am seriously concerned that we are jeopardizing our duties even at that level. Every activity we are currently engaged in is based in statute."
Equally dire comments came from the Office of the Attorney General, Office of the State Appellate Public Defender, and Board of Tax Appeals.
Patty Tobias, administrative director for the Idaho Supreme Court, said further budget reductions "will gravely impair our ability to provide Idaho citizens the justice to which they are constitutionally entitled, and jeopardize beneficial programs such as drug and mental health courts, family court services, domestic violence courts and other court services."
University of Idaho President Duane Nellis said another 5 percent reduction -- on top of the 21 percent reduction in state support the last three years -- "would be devastating to our organization and dangerous to Idaho's future" and lead to "significantly higher tuition for our students."
With regard to the Agricultural Research and Extension Service, Nellis said, it has already eliminated a quarter of its staff positions the last three years, or 86 positions. Cutting its budget by 5 percent would result in another 27 layoffs.
Not every agency raised a red flag. Several indicated they could get by without major impacts. In particular, those that have access to other funding sources -- either federal dollars or dedicated revenue -- found ways to shift work from the general fund to those other accounts.
In most cases, however, these agencies don't receive significant general fund dollars, so they don't generate significant savings.
Sen. Dean Cameron, co-chair of the joint budget committee, said he expected and appreciated the frank responses by state agencies.
"We need to know the impact of our budget decisions," he said. "I can't think of anything worse than making a 'Polyanna' decision, then going home and finding there are substantive problems."
The budget committee begins work on the fiscal 2012 agency budgets today. It's looking to spread a $92 million revenue shortfall across the board, with a minimum 2.2 percent reduction as the starting point. Some may not be able to handle even that, however, as the agency comments indicate.
"We're at the point now where we need to use a scalpel, rather than a saw," said Wayne Hammon, the governor's budget director. "After three years of holdbacks, some critical functions of government are at the stressing point and just can't bear any more. For those agencies that are off the list (for the 2.2 percent cut), that means the number goes up for other agencies."
Spence may be contacted at bspencelmtribune.com or (208) 848-2274.
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(c) 2011, The Lewiston Morning Tribune, Idaho
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