After four weeks of the 2023 Idaho legislative session, House and Senate leaders are still debating whether and how to change the way the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee votes.
As the debate continues behind the scenes at the Idaho State Capitol, JFAC, which is the Idaho Legislature’s powerful budget committee, hasn’t taken any votes on the dozens of supplemental budget requests pending before the committee.
That’s unusual by this stage in the session, which may be about one-third of the way finished — although there is no deadline or requirement to adjourn by a certain date.
The debate centers on whether the committee, which is made up of state representatives and senators, should vote as one bloc as it has in the past or if House members and senators should vote separately. Supporters of the rule change say the move could prevent budget bills from dying on the House or Senate floor because more consensus would be reached at the committee level, while opponents of the change say voting separately could create more roadblocks to state budgets by adding an additional vote to get those budgets out of the committee.
According to archived daily JFAC agendas from the 2019 through 2022 legislative sessions, JFAC had scheduled itself to consider at least 15 supplemental budgets or deficiency warrants by this point in each of the previous four legislative sessions. Deficiency warrants are issued when actual costs exceed the amount of money budgeted for an expense, such as costs related to fighting wildfires. During the first four weeks of the 2019 legislative session, for example, JFAC had put 27 different supplementals or deficiency warrants on its agendas during the first four weeks in session.
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Last year, during the 2022 legislative session, there were 17 different supplemental budget requests or deficiency warrants on JFAC agendas through the first four weeks in session.
This year, there have been zero.
Children’s advocacy groups request approval of emergency rental assistance funding
Board members of a children’s advocacy group say the fight over how JFAC votes has delayed the committee from taking action on supplemental budget requests, including a nearly $15.5 million request for emergency rental assistance.
On Jan. 20, Idaho Children Are Primary founders and board members sent a letter to members of JFAC and Senate leadership asking for JFAC to take up the $15.5 million supplemental funding request for emergency rental assistance by Jan. 31.
That deadline came and went last week, with no action from JFAC.
The funding is part of the state’s Division of Financial Management budget, and it comes from remaining emergency rental assistance funds distributed by the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Emergency Rental Assistance program is meant to assist individuals who need help with rent or utilities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s retroactive or future rent and utilities. An applicants’ income must not exceed 80% of the area median income, and they must provide a statement from a landlord indicating past rent or a bill from a utility company. The assistance lasts a maximum of 18 months, and payments are sent directly to landlords or utility companies to keep accounts current.
The Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s program is applicable to all Idahoans who live outside of Ada County. The agency partners with other community organizations across the state to help identify those who need assistance. The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority has a separate funding allocation, and its program is expected to continue at least through June.
During the 2022 legislative session, the Idaho Legislature approved $38 million of $53.5 million, but that amount officially ran out on Jan. 24, according to Idaho Housing and Finance Marketing and Communications Director Jason Lantz.
In anticipation of the funds running dry, the association stopped taking new applications on Dec. 29 but continued to process those that had already been submitted. About 1,800 applications are awaiting processing or funding awards, Lantz said.
While there are no U.S. Department of the Treasury deadlines for the funding to worry about, Lantz said those applications represent a lot of Idahoans who are waiting on an answer. The Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s call center has been busy trying to keep people informed about the status of their applications.
“There are people for whom this assistance is essential, and obviously the wait can be frustrating, and we’re very sensitive to that,” Lantz said. “But it’s something that is out of our hands at this point.”
Diane Schwarz, a co-founder of Idaho Children Are Primary and one of the people who signed the Jan. 20 letter to legislators, said she hopes JFAC will approve the supplemental funding even though their Jan. 31 target deadline has passed.
“ICAP, along with the Idaho Asset Building Network and others are still pushing for JFAC to authorize the drawdown of the $15.5 million from federal funds,” Schwarz wrote in an email to the Idaho Capital Sun. “Immediate action is needed to help these families stay in their homes.”
There are dozens of other supplemental funding requests awaiting consideration by JFAC as well. One of the other supplemental requests is a one-time request for $1 million for enhanced security at the University of Idaho following the Nov. 13 slayings of four college students. According to the 2023 Legislative Budget Book, the money would go toward funding for Idaho State Police, increased security, safe shuttles, a security review, consulting services and a campus vigil that has already taken place.
What is the Idaho Legislature’s fight over voting in JFAC all about?
JFAC is a joint committee of the Idaho Legislature that includes 10 members of the Idaho Senate and 10 members of the Idaho House of Representatives. Most other committees — although not all — are separated by legislative chamber. For example, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee is made up exclusively of members of the Idaho House, while the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee is made up entirely of members of the Idaho Senate.
For decades JFAC members have voted as a committee. To pass a bill out of committee, it required a simple majority of members to vote yes. With all 20 members present, that means it would take 11 votes to advance a bill to the floor for a vote.
On Jan. 13, Speaker of the House Mike Moyle, R-Star, told the Idaho Capital Sun that he favors changing how JFAC votes. Moyle supports having members of the Idaho House and Idaho Senate vote separately. Under that scenario, a bill would have to receive a majority support during two different votes to advance to the floor. If, for example, members of the Senate Finance Committee voted 8-2 to advance a budget bill but the members of the House Appropriations Committee were split five-to-five, the bill would fail on a tie vote. In that example, the budget bill would need to be rewritten, and it would start the legislative process over.
Changing to Moyle’s rule would also change the overall threshold to kill bills in JFAC. Under the new rule, with all 20 members present, it would take at least 12 members of JFAC (six each from the House and Senate) to advance a budget bill. Meanwhile, it would only take five JFAC members from either the House or Senate to unite to kill a budget bill. Currently, it takes any 10 members to oppose any budget bill and kill it in JFAC on a tie vote of 10 to 10.
House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, told the Sun last month the proposed rule change is a terrible idea that would make it easier to kill budgets for things like public schools and higher education funding, teacher raises and Idaho Department of Health and Welfare programs.
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On Wednesday, Moyle told the Sun he thought a deal on JFAC was close at hand and could be announced this week.
“The co-chairs are working things out, but I think we are ready, though,” Moyle said.
Moyle said he doesn’t think it would take a formal rule change to change how JFAC votes because he believes the committee should have always been voting separately.
However, Schwarz and former Rep. John Rusche, a Democrat from Lewiston who is also on the Idaho Children Are Primary board , said the move would require a rule change. Both cited a list of rules posted to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s website. Rule 3 states, “All decisions shall be by simple majority of the quorum present, except decisions to reopen a budget, or to suspend rules.” The same section of JFAC’s website says a quorum consists of a majority of the committee membership.
In Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, which the Idaho Legislature defers to in issues not covered by a rule, it states “In a more modern practice for voting in a joint committee, the members vote by houses …”
The Idaho Legislature’s Change in Employee Compensation Committee, which is also a joint committee like JFAC, voted Wednesday on salary and benefits recommendations for state employees. When the Change in Employee Compensation Committee voted, all of the committee members voted together as one body.
What happens next to the supplemental budget requests?
Moyle said there has been nothing stopping JFAC from voting on supplemental budget requests at this point. He said the committee could have gone ahead and taken the supplemental budget requests up and voted separately by chamber like he favors.
“They could’ve done it already; there is nothing stopping them from doing it,” Moyle said.
Even if House and Senate leadership announce an agreement for JFAC voting early this week, the $15.5 million isn’t guaranteed. It takes a two-thirds vote of those present to reopen the current year’s budget for any supplemental budget request. Once a budget is reopened, a simple majority vote is required to approve a supplemental budget request. From there, the supplemental request would have to receive a simple majority vote in both the Idaho House and Idaho Senate and be signed by Gov. Brad Little.
All the while, Republican legislators have been scrutinizing federal COVID-19 funding and proposed budget increases.
If the funding is approved, it’s usually about a two-week process for a budget bill to make its way through the legislative process, although legislators are able to suspend rules and fast-track bills when they want.
Moyle said he is aware of the request for the emergency rental assistance and knows the supplemental budget requests haven’t been acted on yet. He said some of the supplemental budget requests aren’t as pressing as others.
“The problem with supplementals, though, is that remember, they have to be an emergency, and some of them are not as much of an emergency as they say and some are,” Moyle told the Sun on Wednesday. “So I asked them to break that out because if the governor is trying to set stuff in supplementals, that is not an emergency we need to separate them out.”
JFAC did not meet Friday for the first time since convening Jan. 10. JFAC is scheduled to meet at 8 a.m. Monday.