EXPLAINED: HOW GOV. LITTLE SIDESTEPPED THE LEGISLATURE TO FUND COVID TESTING IN SCHOOLS
By Fred Birnbaum
Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced in an August 12 press release that he is directing $30 million to expand COVID-19 testing in Idaho K-12 schools.
Wait a minute: Didn’t the Legislature, specifically the Idaho House of Representatives, reject this very appropriation? Yes. The House voted down Senate Bill 1210 on April 27 on a 28-41 vote. That bill would have appropriated $40.3 million to test K-12 students for COVID-19.
Among the reasons for rejecting the testing were the costs and the lack of a plan. Some legislators were also concerned about potential student medical privacy issues.
So, what happened? Doesn’t the Legislature appropriate money, not the governor? In normal times that would be the case. But COVID-19 has opened a Pandora’s Box of borrowed and printed federal dollars.
Although the Legislature rejected direct funding of K-12 COVID-19 testing, the governor had two other options to pay for this testing.
Senate Bill 1173 was the appropriation bill that funded the Division of Public Health Services. At the time of the bill’s introduction, the Idaho Freedom Foundation voiced concerns about the 54 percent increase over the prior year’s appropriation that this bill provided. The increase was driven by federal relief money. There was a single budget line item, titled “COVID Relief Act,” that provided $67.9 million to this agency. These are the funds the governor tapped into to provide K-12 COVID-19 testing.
Believe it or not, Gov. Little also could have used yet another source of funds for this testing. House Bill 370 provided $50 million to the Division of Financial Management from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The bill’s fiscal note language was deliberately vague: “The types of uses for this appropriation include, but are not limited to, vaccine distribution and management, personal protective equipment, communications, public safety, and related technology needs.” The phrase “not limited to” is the catch all phrase.
Why should Idahoans be concerned? Because this is not just about a disease. It is about a reordering of fiscal policies and priorities. According to the Peterson Foundation, over $18 billion has flowed into Idaho governments, businesses, and individuals since the pandemic began. That amounts to more than $10,000 per person, which is about double what the legislature appropriated, from all sources of funds, before the pandemic.
The federal government is shoving money that has been borrowed from our grandkids into every conceivable pocket. Cities, counties, and state agencies have every incentive to spend what they can. That includes testing every K-12 student for COVID-19, even though not a single person in Idaho under the age of 18 years old has died from it.
Another effect of all of this money flowing into Idaho is inflation — too much money chasing too few goods. We all see it every day in the things we buy. Unfortunately, much of the money hasn’t been spent by the various cities, counties, and agencies. And this doesn’t even take into account the infrastructure bill that just passed the U.S. Senate. That would provide Idaho with over $2 billion more funds — again all borrowed from your grandkids.
Just imagine the mischief and cronyism that will ensue from that. The K-12 COVID-19 testing expense is only the beginning of the fiscal incontinence that is coming to Idaho.