Otter to Ferguson: Keep your mitts off Idaho’s surplus!

Gov. Butch Otter is rejecting the notion that a projected $162 million in unexpected revenue means the 2014 Legislature should aim to boost spending.

Otter said he’s “bound and determined that the government is not going to grow back at the same rate that the economy grows” and said the lessons of the Great Recession prove government can do with less by exercising fiscal discipline, co-locating agencies and engaging in partnerships outside of government.

“That all suggests to me that there’s no reason to go back to the old way of doing things: because we got a little extra money, let’s spend it,” Otter said in a Tuesday afternoon meeting with the Idaho Statesman editorial board.

Last week, Otter’s retired chief economist Mike Ferguson produced the $162 million figure as an estimate of unexpected revenue for fiscal 2013, which ends June 30, and fiscal 2014. Ferguson, an advocate of increased investment in public education and other infrastructure, said the new money has “profound implications for fiscal decisions that will be made in the next legislative session.”

Ferguson, an economist for six governors, now heads the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.

For the first 10 months of fiscal 2013, revenue was $79 million above projections, according to Otter’s Chief Economist Derek Santos, Ferguson’s former subordinate. April revenue alone was up $56 million in a $2.7 billion budget.

The Legislature’s budget office, however, notes that $86 million is already committed because existing law requires transfer of the money to the state Budget Stabilization Fund by June 2014 as insurance against a future downturn.

Otter acknowledged he will have more leeway in proposing a fiscal 2015 budget to lawmakers in January than he has since the economy tanked in 2008. But maintaining a robust savings account is central to keeping state operations stable, said Otter, noting he trimmed spending by about 26 percent during the downturn.

“Remember, in 2007 I had $400 million in accumulated savings, plus the surplus that year, that we refused to spend,” Otter said. “So I don’t see that $80 million is going to put us over the threshold” of prudent savings.

Otter said he doesn’t want to risk mid-year holdbacks in spending, which he said he’s experienced 10 times in his 14 years as lieutenant governor and 6-plus years as governor. “Nothing is more dysfunctional,” he said.



Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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