Education, Water and Wolves Top Idaho Gov. Otter's Priorities in State of the State

Education funding, water and wolves were some of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's top priorities in his annual State of the State address Monday.
by Caroline Cournoyer | January 8, 2014 AT 12:00 PM

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By Kimberlee Kruesi

Education funding, water and wolves were some of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's top priorities in his annual State of the State address Monday.

In the annual gubernatorial agenda outline, Otter said his 2015 budget proposal keeps spending down.

"I will not sanction growing our state government as fast as our economy," Otter said. "And I will continue to work for greater efficiency."

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said the governor's proposed budget will serve as a "blueprint" for the 2014 Legislative session.

Here's what the proposal included:

-- 2.5 percent increase in the state's ongoing spending, bumping from about $2.7 billion to $2.85 billion for fiscal year 2015. There were no raises for state employees or teachers in Otter's proposal.

-- $54.7 million to begin funding some of the 20 recommendations from the governor's education task force submitted earlier this year. While the task force's requests totaled more than $350 million, Otter said this was the first investment to fulfill the recommendations over a five-year span.

This includes a $35 million "down payment" to restore discretionary funding that was cut in the prolonged economic recession.

"I believe implementing them will substantially move our policies in the right direction for Idaho's future," Otter said. "That includes making a significant start on a multi-year effort to restore funding to public schools that we withheld during the prolonged economic downturn."

-- $10.4 million to continue installing wireless internet in Idaho's schools. This would also go to maintain the internet-based portal of available online courses.

-- $71 million recommended to go to "rainy day funds." The monies would be divided into four accounts, with the biggest increase of $35 million going toward the budget stabilization funds.

"We made the right decision these past two years to begin refilling those accounts, especially in light of the continuing instability in our nation government's finances and support," Otter said.

-- $15 million to fund projects to protect and sustain the state's most precious resource: water. The one-time expenditure will go to build water storage, recharge efforts and acquire water rights to supply Mountain Home Air Force Base.

"It is a critical investment in our capacity for responsible future growth," Otter said.

Lawmakers praised the governor's water proposal.

The water project budget was gutted during the recession even though the state's water levels have been less than stable over the years.

"When times were rough, we were grabbing for anything we could," said state Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and co-chair of the join appropriations finance appropriations committee. "But the aquifer still needs to be managed."

-- $2 million allocation to control and manage the Gem State's wolves. The monies will be spent to get the fund started and would then be augmented by annual contributions from the livestock industry and Idaho sportsmen.

"We're managing them now, and they're a trophy hunting species," Otter said. "But the population is still growing, and our resources remain at risk."

-- Money for expanding Medicaid eligibility was not part of Otter's proposed budget. However, he did request an increase in spending to meet the need of the so-called "Medicaid woodwork effect." The state anticipates an increase in Medicaid enrollment from those who qualify for the health care assistance program. There are an estimated 35,000 individuals in the woodwork population.

--The governor is also recommending funding three pilot community crisis centers with state and federal dollars under a proposal from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The crisis centers will provide voluntary short-term care to those in crisis who might otherwise go to the emergency room.

"The response to such programs elsewhere has been encouraging, and communities have been more than willing to join in these investments as they see declines in use of local emergency rooms, hospital beds and jail cells," Otter said.

--Otter stressed that collaborative efforts with ranchers and landowners helped protect 1 million acres from wildfire in 2013. He pointed to the creation of the rangeland fire protection associations -- three of which are in south-central Idaho -- as helping reduce the threat of the flames.

(c)2014 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho)