It's Not Easy To Legislate During A Budget Surplus

Jan 26, 2017

Former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb.
Credit AP

As the Idaho Legislature prepares its annual budget, it's debating on how best to handle a $139 million surplus. That's a good thing. But according to experts, the presence of a one-time surplus can make political decisions very difficult.

Earlier this month, a panel of academics and journalists at the City Club of Boise wondered what Idaho legislators would do with a substantial surplus. Retired professor Jim Weatherby said that dealing with excess funds can be harder than dealing with a deficit.

"Ask former speaker Bruce Newcomb about that question and those who served in the 2003 legislature who were forced to raise taxes to protect education services," says Weatherby.

Newcomb served as Speaker of the House for eight years, from 1998 to 2006. The challenge, he says, was understanding which funding needs were immediate and which were long-term.

"One of the things I worried about when we had a surplus was you have to balance the needs with one-time needs and ongoing needs and make sure you don't get yourself out of whack, to where, if you have a shortfall, years down the road, that you haven't got obligations you can't meet," Newcomb says.

It tests the role of statehouse leadership, he says, when a lot of hands are out, begging for that money.

"Well, there's pent-up needs," Newcomb explains. "You take high education, for example, after last year's session, we were still 98% of what we were in 2008 before the recession. When you don't fund higher education, the people that get taxed are the students, with an increase in tuition and fees."

Ironically, Newcomb recalls the years of small ups-and-downs as the most manageable ones.

"I liked it when I was speaker. I liked it when I had a small surplus or a small shortfall, because then you had to work to figure that out."

There are still many weeks left in the 2017 session for lawmakers to decide what to do with the excess funds.

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