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Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee to begin studying funding requests

Idaho

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BOISE (Idaho Capital Sun) – The Legislature’s joint budget committee returns to the Idaho Capitol in Boise this week for three days worth of hearings to study state budget requests, examine federal stimulus funds and prepare for the upcoming legislative session.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee convenes at 9 a.m. Tuesday, and meetings are planned for Wednesday and Thursday as well.

On Tuesday afternoon, legislators on the committee may also begin to wade into Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s $50,000 supplemental budget request to have taxpayers cover her recent legal bills. On Monday, four Idaho Democrats sent a letter to McGeachin asking for more information for the budget request. Idaho Division of Financial Management officials have also requested more information from the lieutenant governor about the request.

Although the Legislature is not in session, JFAC traditionally meets in the offseason to provide extra opportunities for its members to stay up-to-date on the complicated budget and revenue developments.

Rep. Wendy Horman, an Idaho Falls Republican and longtime JFAC member who for years has helped write the public school budgets, said this week’s meetings give her and other committee members a chance to dive deeply into the budget without the outside pressure and the urgency that comes when the Legislature is in session.

“I am really looking forward to it,” Horman said in a phone interview. ”I love these meetings where we have the time to really dig into the agency requests. In a way, sometimes we don’t have as much time during the session to ask all of the questions.”

JFAC members will dive right in Tuesday with an agenda that includes:

  • An update on the general fund.
  • A review of revenues and reserve fund balances.
  • An update on the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 COVID-19 federal stimulus package.
  • A review of 2023 state agency budget requests.
  • An update on 2022 supplemental budget requests from state agencies and officials.

JFAC may address $50,000 supplemental budget request from McGeachin

The last item could be closely watched if legislators dive deeply in Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s $50,000 supplemental request to have taxpayers pay for her outside legal bills stemming from a lawsuit over access to records that the Idaho Press Club filed and won in court.

In response to public records requests filed by the Idaho Capital Sun, McGeachin’s office said it could not find invoices or records for any of her legal bills.

“After a diligent search, we are unable to find any invoices,” McGeachin’s chief of staff Jordan Watters wrote in an Oct. 8 email.

McGeachin tweeted a response on Friday: “We can’t find what we don’t have and we don’t have any invoices.”

Additional state records obtained by the Idaho Capital Sun show Idaho Division of Financial Management officials have also asked McGeachin for more information about her supplemental request.

A Division of Financial Management analyst wrote to McGeachin’s office in September telling Watters that Idaho law requires state officials to be represented by the Attorney General’s Office. The analyst asked if McGeachin’s office could provide invoices and Watters responded Oct. 8, writing that invoices were “not currently available,” according to email records obtained by the Idaho Capital Sun.

So far, McGeachin’s office has not responded to multiple questions from the Idaho Capital Sun about how she came up with her $50,000 supplemental request. Last week, District Judge Steven Hippler ordered McGeachin to pay $28,973.84 in fees and costs incurred by the Idaho Press Club.

On Monday, the four Idaho Democrats serving on JFAC sent McGeachin a letter asking for additional information about her $50,000 request “prior to the consideration of your office’s supplemental budget request for $50,000.”

The Democrats asked for an explanation of how the Attorney General’s Office “failed” to represent McGeachin, as well as an explanation for how her office plans to pay for the Idaho Press Club’s legal bills and her $750 fine. The Democrats also asked for an unredacted copy of McGeachin’s agreement for outside legal services and copies of unredacted invoices for legal bills or any correspondence with her private attorney that would include cost estimates.

“The undersigned may be unable to take any affirmative action on your supplemental budget request until we have received this requested information,” the letter signed by Sens. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, and Boise-based Reps. Brooke Green and Colin Nash stated.

“Please send this information to the LSO budget staff as soon as possible, so as not to not delay the supplemental budget request,” the letter concluded.

Separately from the letter, Horman said legislators and other friends have been asking and are interested in McGeachin’s supplemental funding request, but Horman said she hasn’t been given any more information than what has been reported publicly. Horman said state officials hope to have more information by Tuesday’s meeting.

What else is the joint committee doing this week?

Wednesday will be another full day for JFAC. Members will convene at 8:30 a.m. and continue a discussion of 2023 state budget requests.

The committee will also receive an update on Gov. Brad Little’s 2021 and 2022 initiatives and discuss federal funding for COVID-19 testing in schools.

From there, JFAC members are scheduled to leave the Statehouse and travel to College of Western Idaho’s campus, where they will meet and have lunch with presidents of Idaho community colleges.

On Thursday, JFAC members will wrap up the offseason meetings with a overview of a proposal for change in state employee compensation in 2023, an update on school transportation costs and a discussion of noncognizable funds, such as funding that did not come from the state and would not have been known or available during the Legislature’s budgeting process.

“These interim meetings are really important to give us an overall look at the budget picture we are facing this session while, on a granular level, looking at some of the details,” Horman said. “They are some of my favorite meetings because of that.”

JFAC is traditionally one of the Legislature’s largest, most powerful and hardest working committees. The committee is responsible for writing the state budget, which this year calls for $4.2 billion in general fund spending. The committee includes 20 members — 10 each from the House and Senate, with a total of 16 Republicans and four Democrats. The committee meets each morning during the legislative sessions, whereas most other committees besides the education committees meet just two or three times a week.

Despite its influence, JFAC doesn’t have the power to actually enact budget laws itself. That requires the full Legislature, just like other laws do.

Tuesday’s meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the Lincoln Auditorium, Room WW02 on the Garden Level at the Idaho Capitol. Each of this week’s JFAC meetings will be streamed online live, for free, using Idaho Public Television’s Idaho In Session service.

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