Idaho legislator hopes to be people’s calculator

As he tracks outlays, budget leaders get frustrated with Barbieri’s miscount of appropriations.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comFebruary 6, 2014 

Every day that the Idaho House passes a spending bill, Rep. Vito Barbieri says he’ll chime in to give the public a running count of the damages.

“Taxpayers will be delighted to know that we only spent $1,931,200 today, for a total of $142,153,900,” Barbieri said during the announcement period at the close of Tuesday’s floor session.

That was the fourth time Barbieri offered his accounting, a practice he vows to continue through the end of the session.

“It’s a minor attempt at just highlighting the importance that what we do is appropriate billions of dollars,” said Barbieri, a fourth-year lawmaker from North Idaho.

Barbieri said he considered creating an Excel spreadsheet but decided to rely on older technology that he can stick to the ledge near his desk.

“I’m just using a Post-it, adding up what we spend today and adding that to yesterday’s total,” said Barbieri, 62, a retired attorney.

His effort has been lauded by some of the House’s conservatives, including the Legislature’s senior member, 32-year Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby.

“That’s our conscience,” said Wood, one of a handful of incumbent Republicans who is supporting Sen. Russ Fulcher’s challenge to GOP Gov. Butch Otter.

But the conscience got some recalibration after legislative leaders decided that it was time to correct Barbieri’s figures — which were exaggerated by about eight-fold.

FIXING THE NUMBERS

On Tuesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, finally voiced leadership’s discomfort with Barbieri’s count.

Bell spoke immediately after Barbieri, reminding colleagues and the public that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee publishes a green sheet summarizing spending to date.

“We update it each time we spend general funds and you can also go online and see that,” Bell said. “So, that will take care of the announcements on what’s happening on the spending level and we hope that you’ll use that to keep up with us.”

After adjournment, Bell sent Vice Chairman Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, to confer with Barbieri.

“Bless his heart,” Bell told the Statesman in explaining her decision to intervene. “At first I was stunned, then I was a little angry. Then I got to thinking he will be so totally embarrassed when he realizes how far off he is and his math teacher will be flipping in her grave.”

Bolz huddled with Barbieri to explain that the House had acted on nine supplemental appropriations for fiscal 2014 to date, totalling $18.9 million, more than half of it for unbudgeted firefighting costs.

But in several cases, Barbieri included money appropriated by the 2013 Legislature, adding $121.4 million to his count. His biggest error was adding $89 million from the Fish and Game budget authorized last year.

“I’m just spouting off numbers and am creating confusion,” Barbieri acknowledged, promising to clean up his arithmetic.

After Barbieri made the $89 million mistake, House Speaker Scott Bekde hinted at his displeasure with a dry observation, “Thank you for that salient announcement.”

Barbieri said he had doubts about continuing the exercise, but decided that alerting folks watching online will be of considerable benefit once he gets the figures straight.

STATEWIDE AUDIENCE

Barbieri said he’s gotten warm feedback and said the video feed has impact lacking in an accounting on paper.

“It’s a video presentation of the numbers,” he said. “From the people I’ve spoken to in my district, they will be well-pleased when they see these numbers will be announced on a daily basis.”

Bedke, R-Oakley, got a taste of that last week when he gave a luncheon speech to the Idaho Society of Association Executives and got a question about Barbieri’s tally.

“I thought it was great,” said the questioner.

Bedke replied that he would “measure my remarks” because a reporter was in the room. He said the accounting could be useful “but there might be ulterior motives.”

After Barbieri was schooled by Bolz, Bedke said, “He needs to get the numbers right.”

Bedke said he considered the daily announcement “somewhat redundant” but respects Barbieri’s right to make it.

THE LONG GAME

Barbieri says his motive is to slow spending growth by publicizing that Idaho spends about $6.5 billion on behalf of taxpayers a year, $2.8 billion from general funds, $2.4 billion in federal money and $1.3 billion from dedicated sources such as Fish and Game licenses.

But Barbieri said he has no interest in serving on the budget committee because he sees it as operating on autopilot. “There’s not the same balance of effective input that I see on other committees,” he said.

Barbieri said he voted against more than 60 percent of spending bills in his first two years. Last year, he was more supportive as budgets were closer to his targets. This year, however, with Otter proposing a $3 billion budget, he expects to be more skeptical. He’s voted against four of the nine spending bills so far.

He acknowledges having no proposals for cutting particular programs. Rather, Barbieri aims to build a broader consensus, particularly in light of the federal government scaling back its spending in coming years.

“The taxpayers will not be able to continue to afford government,” Barbieri said. “When we hit that point, what is the government prepared to do?”

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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