It sounds like one of those Zen koans that only make sense when youre stoned or nearing collapse from heatstroke.
If a government agency takes steps to improve transparency, but you cant see the results, can it still claim success?
This mystical conundrum arose after state Controller Brandon Woolf announced a new website providing easier access to state revenue, expenditure and employment data.
This is an important step in the transparency of government, said Gov. Butch Otter, who attended the announcement. People will be able to go online (http://transparent.idaho.gov) and see what the state is spending money on and where were spending it. I hope the federal government takes a look at this; Id like to see where its spending money.
Unfortunately, due to technical problems with the Legislatures Internet service, I couldnt actually connect to the site from inside the Capitol. It just kept loading and loading and loading.
It sounded pretty cool, though and if nothing else, the episode is a fabulous metaphor for life at the Statehouse. At times this place seems like a lost chapter from George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four, where peace is war, transparency is opaque and optimism is a sure path to pessimism.
Just a few hours after Woolfs announcement, for example, the Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee accepted the governors 2014 revenue projection of $2.8 billion, a healthy 5.3 percent increase over the current year despite the fact that the median revenue estimate from the 17 Republicans on the committee was more than $60 million below that.
It was fascinating talking with some of the five committee Democrats after the meeting. I came out of there feeling as cynical about the Legislature as Ive ever been, but they were almost glowing. After years of being slapped down every time they argued for higher revenue projections, they finally won one.
I went into the meeting thinking they were going to low-ball it again, said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow. I walked out of there thinking, hey, this is great. I was (optimistic), too until I got to my door. Then I started thinking.
Yeah, that would do it.
The committee has had similar disagreements about revenue the past four years. Until now, its never been reluctant to go with a more conservative figure. In 2012, its forecast was $61 million below the governors. In 2011, it was $92 million less. In 2010, $143 million, and $101 million in 2009.
Even knowing that a lower number would mean deeper cuts for state agencies, the committee never hesitated to go there.
Not this year. Despite concerns that his projection was too high, Republicans went with the governors number. What gives?
Could the uncharacteristic move be related to talk about personal property tax relief? Pull too much money off the table at the start of the session and lawmakers cant give it back at the end.
Im not willing to close the door (on property tax relief), and if we tighten the number down too much it will stymie those discussions, said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.
This same kind of doublethink was evident in the governors 2014 budget recommendation.
He included $34 million in the public schools budget as a placeholder to pay for any school reform legislation his stakeholder group might recommend next year. That let him take credit for a 2 percent increase in K-12 funding, so he could say in his State of the State address that my highest priority remains public schools.
But the joint budget committee doesnt approve placeholders. It never sets money aside in the vague hope that legislation will come forward in the future; the budgets it approves reflect only bills approved during the current session.
Without that $34 million, though, the governors 2 percent budget increase turns into an $8.6 million decrease and his highest priority becomes an afterthought to tax relief.
Makes you wonder if Orwell ever worked in a legislature. Here, more is almost always less.
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