Compassion? Otter's budget priorities lack for common sense

The good news: Gov. Butch Otter is sticking with his budget wish list for 2012-13.

The bad news: Gov. Butch Otter hasn’t changed his budget wish list for 2012-13.

Five weeks into the 2012 session, it’s getting close to budget showdown time. On Friday, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will wrap up its daily grind of hearing presentations and protestations from state agencies.

When JFAC starts setting budgets, it becomes a question not just of where the money will be spent — but how much money will lawmakers decide to spend.

Last month, a legislative committee took its best guess at handicapping tax collections for 2012-13, and as we’ve seen before, lawmakers are coming in below Otter’s forecasts. The gap between the Legislature and the governor is $33.3 million.

In past years, Otter would defer — or, if you’d prefer, cave — to the wishes of the Legislature. But this year, he’s holding firm. Here’s a tidbit from the Associated Press: “(Otter) budget chief Wayne Hammon has been jawboning lawmakers fearful Otter’s forecast of $2.7 billion in revenue is too optimistic.”

That’s heartening to hear. Otter is showing some resolve. What’s more, the January tax numbers — which came in after legislators made their 2012-13 revenue forecast — beat projections by $6.3 million. One month does not a trend make, but it gives Otter a reason for maintaining resolve.

But there is a fine line between resolve and obstinance.

Hammon aslo tells the Associated Press that the governor has no plans to reverse the $35 million in Medicaid cuts from 2011. Instead, he is staying the course with his budget priorities: carving out $45 million for amorphous tax relief, with the details to be worked out by lawmakers; awarding $41 million in merit pay raises to teachers and state employees; and socking away $60 million in savings.

So let’s recap.

Last week, when JFAC took the unusual step of hosting a public hearing to discuss the budget, more than 300 people showed up — and most came to criticize the Medicaid cuts. Perhaps legislative budget-writers heard the message from these most vulnerable constituents.

Otter, obviously, did not.

Otter would still rather put $60 million into the bank, rather than restore funding for Idaho’s health care safety net. Perhaps that is Otter’s core conservatism coming out — but if that’s the case, then it isn’t even cost-effective conservatism.

For every 30 cents Idaho puts into Medicaid, the federal government matches it with 70 cents. That turns a $35 million funding cut into a $108 million cut. So, in order to sock $35 million of state money into savings, the state has to walk away from $73 million in federal Medicaid funding. So much for return on investment.

Whenever I knock Otter on budgeting decisions, my mind always goes back to his comments from an Idaho Press Club breakfast in 2010, during the heart of the Great Recession. “I'd just like — I would like to see some compassion, maybe that’s the word I'm looking for, some compassion. This is a tough, tough position to be in. And it’s not fun."

OK, so let me try to be compassionate about this.

I’m not saying Butch Otter’s heart is in the wrong place.

But his priorities are.

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Otter never has cared about anyone but his cronies.