September 26, 2023

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Lawmakers approve $$ for new prison, vets home upgrades and Capitol remodeling | Idaho

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BOISE — Legislative budget writers approved the final list of big capital investments for the state for this year on Thursday, including a $112 million new state prison, $75 million in upgrades to Idaho’s state veterans homes, and a surprise addition: $11 million to remodel the state Capitol for private offices for legislators.

All the debate in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee was about the prison; no one even brought up the Capitol office remodel plans. They also weren’t included in the governor’s budget recommendation or the Permanent Building Fund budget request, from which JFAC voted to allocate the funds.

“We’ve been talking about it for years, to get our offices fixed on the garden level and first floors,” said Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, JFAC co-chair. “We need those bad. We’ve talked about this forever.”

In fact, the House passed legislation in 2019 to spend $10.6 million for that project plus several others, with the aim of getting private offices for every House member, something every senator already has. The big Capitol renovation and expansion that started in 2007 and finished in 2009 originally was supposed to include that, but when Gov. Butch Otter was elected in 2008, he scaled it back, eliminating a second underground level.

The 2019 legislation included $7.1 million for remodeling space on the Capitol’s first floor and “garden level,” or basement, for House members. But the appropriation for that, after passing the House handily that year, died on a 17-18 vote in the Senate.

Lawmakers tried again last year, with a pared-back $2 million appropriation just to remodel space on the first floor previously occupied by the state treasurer’s office for House members’ office spaces. That bill also failed to pass the Senate, dying without a vote there as senators wrapped up the bulk of their session last May.

Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, the Senate co-chair of JFAC, is a co-sponsor of the new appropriation bill, along with Youngblood and three other JFAC members who worked on the Permanent Building Fund budget. “This is just through the committee, so we don’t know what will happen when it hits either floor,” Agenbroad said. He said of the Permanent Building Fund budget, “That would be the appropriate place to fund it, if it gets funded.”

“One thing has changed in the last year,” Agenbroad said. “The legal issue as to who controls the space has been resolved.”

That happened through a bitter court fight between the Legislature and state Treasurer Julie Ellsworth, who fought her office’s eviction from the Capitol but lost. She and her staff moved out of their first-floor Capitol offices, which included a historic state treasurer’s vault, in March of 2021.

Without any additional appropriation of state funding, lawmakers moved into somewhat makeshift offices in part of the space without any remodeling, and have been using it this year.

The differences in quality of office space have been a sore point between the House and Senate since the Capitol reopened from the renovation in 2009. But Agenbroad said he hasn’t been hearing that this year. “I don’t think this is an issue between the House and the Senate,” he said. “As a legislative body, we want to be as accessible to our constituents as possible, in space where they can be comfortable.”

He said of the House, “I trust them to know what’s best for them.”

The office space of Rep. Bruce Skaug at the Idaho State Capitol, Thursday, March 10, 2022. Skaug’s office is among a group of repurposed spaces being used by legislators that are not fully private.

A breakdown from the state Department of Administration showed an estimate for the work of $9.7 million, plus additional costs for exits, windows and an inflation contingency. The project includes design and construction.

The other capital projects approved by JFAC on Thursday, in a supplemental appropriation that allows spending to begin during the current budget year, were:

• $75 million for upgrades to Idaho’s state veterans homes to bring them up to the new standards, which call for single rooms with private baths.

• $112.4 million for a new 848-bed women’s prison south of Boise, to free up badly needed minimum-custody cell space in the state’s prison complex south of Boise for male inmates, ease overcrowding and eliminate pricey contracts to send overflow Idaho inmates to out-of-state private prisons.

• Two other state prison projects, $37.6 million to upgrade the current medical annex complex south of Boise and $12 million for a re-entry center in Pocatello.

• $3 million in funding for the “Future Tech” facility at the College of Eastern Idaho.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, spoke out against the new prison. “This rubs me the wrong way right now,” he said. “This is a lot of money being spent on a buildout of a prison. It’s actually probably more cost-effective to use out-of-state resources for that.”

Just he and Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, voted against the spending package; it passed on a 15-2 vote in the joint committee. Other budgets set by JFAC on Thursday included:

• A budget for the Idaho Commission for Libraries, which includes several funding boosts including $307,000 in state funds for e-books and audio titles for Idaho’s K-12 public schools. Giddings requested a list of all the titles; Nate objected vociferously to the spending proposal, saying librarians don’t want to “protect children from harmful materials in libraries.”

Amid multiple objections from other JFAC members, Nate said, “We should cut off the funding for all organizations which purport to do good for the community while at the same time harming kids.” The motion passed, 17-2.

• A budget for the Workforce Development Council that included a supplemental appropriation for $15 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act aid funds for child care infrastructure grants to employers and child care providers. Giddings demanded to know whether any of the money might go to nonprofit groups, saying, “So it’s not going to go to any nonprofits, can you guarantee that?”

Wendi Secrist, executive director of the Workforce Development Council, said, “The funding would be available to child care providers and businesses, so if a child care provider was a nonprofit,” it could get a grant. “It would not go to organizations that aren’t directly providing child care,” she said.

The budget was approved on a 17-2 vote with just Giddings and Nate dissenting.

• Budgets for the state Tax Commission and Board of Tax Appeals, which aligned with the governor’s recommendations and passed unanimously.

Budget bills still need passage in the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but they rarely change once they’re set by the joint House-Senate committee.

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