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Lawmakers can tap state experts to get grip on Idaho budget

Information is power, and Idaho lawmakers could have more of it this year with a new emphasis on sending non-partisan budget experts to House and Senate committees to explain the numbers in the financial requests of the state agencies they oversee.

Committee chairmen meeting Wednesday were encouraged to tap the Legislative Services Office’s Budget and Policy Analysis Division to explain the often complex budget process outlined in the 777-page 2019 Legislative Budget Book for fiscal year 2020.

Republican Sen. Steve Bair of Blackfoot is co-chairman of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, called JFAC, comprised of lawmakers from both the House and Senate that must ultimately sign off on agency appropriations.

“Quite frankly, JFAC has been to a lot of legislatures a mystery, and they haven’t understood the process very well,” he said. “This is our humble way of providing education and teaching moments for legislators who don’t serve on the committee to be able to understand the process a little better.”

Ultimately, that could make lawmakers more informed when bills leave committees and come to the House and Senate floors.

The goal is that non-JFAC members “have at least a minimal understanding of the budget process, how it works and have at least a cursory knowledge and understanding of the bill that’s before them that they’re voting on,” Bair said. “I think this will go a long ways to help those folks.”

The budget process also involves considering Gov. Brad Little’s recommended budget, which in some places varies from what state agencies are requesting and from what some lawmakers in the House and Senate might consider adequate.

Paul Headlee is manager of the Legislative Services Office’s Budget and Policy Analysis Division.

“We’re a non-partisan staff,” he said. “We don’t advocate for the agency or the governor’s office. We simply present the agency request and the governor’s recommendation.”

Headlee said his agency, which has analysts who cover various other state agencies, has done presentations for education committees. But the new emphasis could have his staff frequenting other committees as well. “Helping all legislators understand the budget process can only be a positive,” he said.

All 105 lawmakers also have new computers this year, approved through a previous budget process that involves replacing equipment on a schedule, to help sort out the budget.

Lenovo laptops with 250 solid state hard drives replace 6-year-old HP Elitebook Folios, the Legislative Services Office’s Information Technology Division said.

Bair said the old computers “were really reliable computers. I hope this new batch is. They’re working.”

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