$15M question may be decided in closed meetings

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

Bad ideas surface at the end of any legislative session. Some zip through both houses during the rush to adjournment.

In the worst last-minute act of the 2007 session, lawmakers created a $15 million economic reserve slush fund. The money could well be up for grabs today, during a water summit orchestrated by Gov. Butch Otter. Portions of the daylong summit will be closed to the public.

This is certainly no way to spend tax money. Even Otter dislikes the process for spending the $15 million. However, legislators set this in motion with its hasty passage of House Bill 330.

The timeline: The budget-writing House Appropriations Committee introduced the bill on March 28; the bill passed the House 52-12 on March 29; and the bill passed the Senate 25-7 on March 30, the final day of the session.

These 77 lawmakers were, at the risk of a bad pun, logrolled. The last-minute spending bill also earmarked $3.5 million in state money for cash-strapped rural schools in Idaho timber country. The idea is to have a contingency that could replace a federal program that, in turn, has replaced declining timber receipts in past years.

With this as bait, lawmakers put a separate $15 million into the hands of a legislative Gang of Four: Senate President Pro Tem Robert Geddes, R-Soda Springs; House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale; Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert; and House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. HB 330 empowers these lawmakers to decide how the Department of Commerce spends the money, although lawmakers must get Otter’s “concurrence.”

Where might the money go? Perhaps, as the speculation goes, to buy out some water users who might otherwise get left dry this summer. Cameron, usually one of the Legislature’s clear-eyed pragmatists, dismisses the suggestion of an under-the-table handout during the closed portions of today’s summit. “I don’t believe for a moment that the decision on spending that money will be made behind closed doors,” Cameron told The Associated Press.

Trouble is, when you combine closed meetings with a big uncommitted lump of dollars, it’s not too much of a stretch to put the two together.

Things get worse. When lawmakers rushed to create this $15 million slush fund, they didn’t take the time to trouble themselves with the Constitution. They allowed a few of their own to decide whether to release this money to a state agency. Otter cannot act unless the lawmakers act first. This “quite possibly” violates the Constitution’s separation of powers language, Deputy Attorney General Mitchell Toryanski wrote on March 30, the day the Senate approved the bill.

As Otter testily but fairly put in a letter to Denney last week, “I refuse to be an active party to the Legislature’s usurpation of executive authority.” Otter doubted the courts gave him the ability to veto a line item of a spending bill, so he allowed the bill to become law without his signature. To his credit, Otter at least gave this bad idea considerably more thought than legislators had.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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