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Idaho legislators gear up for 2024 session with meetings on budget, revenue reports

JFAC chair Rep. Wendy Horman (R, Idaho Falls) in committee at the Idaho State Capitol building on January 11, 2023.
Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun
JFAC chair Rep. Wendy Horman (R, Idaho Falls) in committee at the Idaho State Capitol building on January 11, 2023.

Idaho legislators will set the stage for the upcoming 2024 legislative session during a series of seven meetings at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise over the next two weeks.

Although the 2024 legislative session does not begin until Jan. 8, activity will pick up inside the Statehouse halls starting Thursday, with the first of seven consecutive days of meetings. During some of the meetings, legislators are expected to discuss deadlines for the legislative session and begin looking at budget requests and revenue reports.

The Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for conducting budget hearings and setting the state budget, will meet daily from Nov. 8 to Nov. 10.

JFAC co-chair Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said those meetings allow members to begin diving into the fiscal year 2025 budget requests that state agencies submitted Sept. 1.

“It only took me one session on JFAC to realize January was way too late to start working on budgets,” Horman said in a telephone interview.

“(Next week’s meetings) will be very much focused on actual budget work, so we will be reviewing budgets for particular agencies over the course of Wednesday and Thursday,” Horman said.

Idaho legislators to discuss property tax law, state’s transition to new financial system

During the course of the week, JFAC members also plan to discuss the impact of the 2022 property tax reduction law known as House Bill 292, discuss budget and program audits and receive briefings on state revenue collections and the state government’s transition to the new Luma business enterprise system.

On Sept. 22, the Capital Sun reported data entry errors and challenges transitioning to the Luma system prevented the state from releasing its official comparative revenue reports during the first three months of the 2024 fiscal year that begin July 1. When state officials released the first quarter report Oct. 23, it showed the state’s three largest revenue sources came in a combined$38.8 million below state projections.

Horman also said JFAC members will begin adopting a series of changes to how the committee handles its business, beginning next week. State officials are working on adding data to the Idaho Legislature’sbudget and policy website. JFAC members themselves are also planning to go digital and will carry an electronic device such as an iPad or Microsoft Surface instead of the physical state budget books that number hundreds of pages that budget writers traditionally carried through the Capitol.

Audits will play a role in budget process during 2024 legislative session, JFAC co-chairwoman says

As part of the changes, Horman also said JFAC members plan to elevate the role and use of audits in the budget process. For instance, Horman said legislators have been pushing for transparency on federal funding and drilling down into the agency “base” budgets to explore each component of the budget, not just the new spending initiatives or programs proposed by agencies.

“We want to elevate the role of audits so taxpayers know we have very high expectations for the handling of their money,” Horman said.

Meanwhile, JFAC is working to decide when and how it’ll conduct oversight hearings following up on an audit into the Department of Health and Welfare, Horman said.

The committee authorized the audit, which was published in August. The audit found a lack of internal controls in how the Department of Health and Welfare distributed tens of millions in grant funds meant for helping school-aged children recover from pandemic-era learning loss, leading to funds being used for ineligible purposes. The state health department disagreed with all of the audit’s findings.

The audit findings are “serious enough it calls into question the authorization of funds for the agency,” Horman told the Idaho Capital Sun. The audit concluded its findings were serious enough to report to the Idaho Attorney General for misuse of public funds.

“Audits are done for the benefit of assuring policymakers and the public that their taxpayer funds are being utilized in accordance with law and with government accounting standards. What we learned from the audit is that was not the case,” Horman said. “In order for us to feel comfortable giving them authorization for taxpayer dollars, we’re going to need to see some evidence that there are appropriate fiscal controls in place throughout the agency.”

She said it is undecided when the oversight hearings will be conducted.

“No one has ever seen an audit like this,” Horman said. “Typically, when you have audit findings, the agency will come up with a corrective action plan and then we work back and forth to make sure the proper fiscal controls are back in place. (DHW) respectfully disagreed with every single audit finding. That’s just not how audits work.”

The Department of Health and Welfare “awaits next steps with confidence knowing the grants were distributed legally, as affirmed by the Attorney General’s Office,” spokesperson Greg Stahl said.

Two legal memos from the Attorney General’s Office in November 2022 and January 2023 said the health department’s distribution of the grants were legally sound. But the Attorney General’s Office withdrew those opinions in March, saying that they were legally inaccurate.

The author of those opinions, a since-fired deputy attorney general, disagreed that they were inaccurate but withdrew the opinions. That attorney recently sued the Idaho Attorney General’s Office for retaliation, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported.

“DHW has welcomed independent, unbiased review of the department’s administration of the Community Partner grants all along and will meet any review, audit, or investigation with cooperation because we stand by our work,” Stahl said, adding that “While the department agrees with the many factual observations in the report that recognize the diligence and thoroughness of the department’s process, we respectfully disagree with all of the report’s findings.”

Veteran Idaho legislators to discuss 2024 deadlines, goals

Even before JFAC gets the chance to meet, members of the Legislative Council will meet at 8:30 a.m. Thursday. Although the council’s agenda had not been published by the deadline for this article, the council is expected to discuss key deadlines and parameters for the upcoming session, said Horman, who is also a member of the Legislative Council.

The Legislative Council oversees the management responsibilities of the Idaho Legislature. The council is made up of the speaker of the Idaho House and the president pro tem of the Idaho Senate, as well each chamber’s majority and minority leaders and two representatives and two senators from each major political party. Altogether, there are eight Republicans on the Legislative Council and six Democrats.

“I view the Legislative Council meeting the same way I view the JFAC interim meetings,” Horman said. “It is an opportunity for the Legislative Council to prepare for the session, identify dates and look at what the legislative budget will be.”

Efforts to reach Speaker of the House Mike Moyle, R-Star, and House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, on Friday were unsuccessful.

This story was originally published by the Idaho Capital Sun.