BOISE, Idaho — It appears it’s going to take a dozen House Democrats if Idaho is to hang on to more than a billion dollars in federal coronavirus relief money.
A majority of the 58 House Republicans often vote against budget bills containing Idaho’s share of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. Instead, they opt to send it to other states. Some Republicans oppose taking federal money. Others fear they’ll anger the libertarian and influential Idaho Freedom Foundation - which typically wants “no” votes on ARPA budget bills - ahead of the May Republican primary.
The 12 Democratic votes typically are enough, but not always, to push the bills through. About a dozen budget bills have survived this year with Democratic help after getting majority Republican opposition. On Tuesday, that included the $220 million budget for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Public Health that passed 40-30.
“Some would like to see these federal tax dollars go to Oregon. Or New York. Or California,” said Democratic Rep. Colin Nash, who sits on the Legislature's powerful budget-setting committee. “But if Congress has appropriated it for the state, we’d like to see our federal tax dollars stay in state.”
Congress approved the rescue money last year. Idaho is getting about $5.3 billion, including $2.1 billion in direct payments to people and businesses. Of the remaining $3.2 billion, about $2.2 billion requires the Legislature’s approval.
That $2.2 billion is mainly intended for one-time infrastructure expenses such as roads, bridges, broadband and water and sewer facilities. The money can be spent over several years, but more than half of it is frontloaded and needs the Legislature's approval this year.
Republican Rep. Rick Youngblood, a banker who co-chairs the budget-setting committee, has stood up on the House floor numerous times to support budget bills, explaining that Idaho taxpayers are on the hook for paying back ARPA money whether it's used in the state or not.
“Doesn't make sense,” he said about voting against using the money.
Republican Rep. Tammy Nichols, who typically opposes using ARPA money, said she has heard that argument.
“My response to that is, 'Well, if we're truly a sovereign state, we should be sending the money back,” she said. “If Idaho is touting itself as conservative and fiscally conservative, then we should be sending it back.”
Idaho’s overall budget for fiscal year 2023, which starts July 1, is just under $13 billion. Almost $6 billion of that is federal money.
Republican Rep. Heather Scott, who also often rejects budget bills, said she's concerned that ARPA money will expand government.
“The overall thing I’m seeing is that every agency, because the money is available, seems to be growing in size beyond really where they need to be for the state,” she said. “Even if it’s one-time money, they’ll grow the agency with that money.”
Republican Rep. Karey Hanks has stated on the House floor that she will vote against any bill containing ARPA money, even though her rural district would greatly benefit from money to fix roads, bridges and expand broadband.
“Would that I live in such a black and white world as she,” said Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke, who generally trusts the budget committee, called the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, whose members he appoints from the House.
“I’m assuming that they all work in good faith, and so I support the committee, usually,” he said.
There isn't as much drama in the Senate. Republican Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, a banker who co-chairs the budget committee with Youngblood, said the constituents he represents want him to use the ARPA money.
“Nobody likes the fact that our country has the level of debt that it has, and that this money is actually borrowed debt,” he said, emphasizing Idaho's share needs to be used on projects that will benefit future generations who will be paying back the money. “Things that are tangible, that will be paying dividends that hopefully will take the burden off future generations.”
He noted the state, besides deteriorating roads and bridges, has $1 billion of deferred maintenance on state buildings.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation gives numeric scores to bills, with negative scores generally drawing more Republican “no” votes. The group also scores lawmakers based on their votes on those bills, including budget bills.
Scott, for example, has a 100% rating. Hanks is at 98%. Republican Rep. Ron Nate, who is on the budget committee and frequently argues against using ARPA money on the House floor, is at 99%.
Such high ratings are interpreted by some as an indication those lawmakers aren't doing their constituents, or future generations, any favors when it comes to rejecting ARPA money.
“I suppose to make the same improvements to the state of Idaho in the future, it will just cost our children and grandchildren more money,” said Republican Rep. Scott Syme, another budget-committee member who typically supports budget bills on the House floor. He said he doesn't pay attention to how bills are rated by the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
Democratic House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel said she doesn't see the logic in voting against federal coronavirus relief money.
“It's kind of shaking your fist at the sky to the detriment of everyday Idahoans,” she said, noting in particular money to expand broadband.
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