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Neglecting Our Needs 

All the political posturing among the Republicans who rule the statehouse is driving Idaho right into the ditch

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Republican legislators in Boise are itching to get home to their primaries. So far the legislative session has about reached the corner of "Time Out" and "Who's On First?" But re-election jitters always take precedence over the peoples' business. My guess is the legislative session will sine die sometime around Friday, March 21.

Going home early may be the smartest strategy available to legislators, considering the number of surprise bloopers that came at us, rat-a-tat-tat, right from the starting gun. (Figure of speech. The NRA hasn't armed the legislative staff — yet). Who can guess what administrative stumble will next see the light of day?

The most serious misstep was revealed by the Legislative Services audit performed on the Office of the State Treasurer, a position held by Republican Ron Crane of Nampa. The facts show that the State Treasurer altered the figures of the assets of one account under his safekeeping and favored another. In so doing, the state account lost $10.2 million, maybe more.

Auditors recommended an accountability board be assigned to the State Treasurer's office, to make sure transactions involving similar large amounts of money are free from such loosey-goosey deals with a suspiciously fishy smell.

Treasurer Crane denies wrongdoing and boldly announced he is running for another term, his fifth.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has earned kudos and catcalls at the same time. Luna deserves praise for recommending a $77 million increase in the public schools appropriation, more than twice as much as Governor Butch Otter has requested. At the same time, Luna shares the blame for the complicated mess surrounding broadband services to Idaho schools. That debacle involves a serious lawsuit, which may have prompted the feds to put a hold on payments for the broadband services. It appears to have set members of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee to scratching their heads in dismay, maybe even disgust.

The plot thickens. Luna's sister, Teresa Luna, is the director of the Idaho Department of Administration, which asked members of JFAC for $14.45 million in "bridge money" to cover the unpaid bills for broadband services.

Unlike Treasurer Crane, State Superintendent Luna won't be running for re-election to another term. Luna has been criticized in the past for receiving thousands of dollars in campaign funds from buddies in the for-profit education industry. He undoubtedly will find a six-figure job somewhere in that corporate circle. And on his way out the door, he has requested $2.5 million more from JFAC.

These sample gaffes alone total a tidy $27.2 million. A million here, a million there — pretty soon they may add up to real money. And these folks call themselves conservatives!

Let me also mention the $90 million in federal money that Idaho will lose because heartless Republicans don't want to have anything to do with Obamacare. Never mind the 50,000 working-for-less Idahoans who will go without medical care because Republican legislators are afraid of their potential political primary opponents, who lean even further to the right.

Michael Ferguson, who served as chief economist for six consecutive Idaho governors, recently retired from state government to start the nonprofit Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. Last month, Ferguson made public an alternative budget to that of Governor Otter.

The Ferguson budget would eliminate the Governor's proposed personal property tax relief of $30 million, give a 4 percent pay raise to teachers and state employees, add a total of $70 million in additional funds to public schools, and add $35 million to Health and Welfare, which would yield more than $100 million when matched with federal dollars. The budget also would leave Idaho with a $66 million surplus.

Ferguson justified his budget's increased investment in education and health, plus teacher and state employee adjustments for inflations, with the following statement: "In the 1990s, when we collected more revenue than we needed, our economy grew faster than almost all other states. Today, after more than a decade of reduced investments, that trend has reversed. Idaho is now the second poorest state in the nation with the highest percentage of minimum wage jobs: and we invest substantially less in education than all but one other state."

It is unlikely that the Republican-led Idaho legislature will heed the advice of this Idaho-savvy economist. But the possibility exists for legislators to turn down the unwise and uncalled-for $30 million in tax relief. It is also crazy to reject the $90 million from our own federal government to expand health care coverage to Idaho's working poor.

An Idaho legislator's best option is to forget about primary election opponents and concentrate on doing what's best for the citizens of Idaho. ♦

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