Trump’s budget could impact eastern Idaho

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, joined by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, left, speaks about President Donald Trump's budget proposal for the coming fiscal year during daily press briefing at the White House, in Washington, Thursday, March 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Graphic shows Trump FY 2018 budget breakdown; 2c x 6 inches; 96.3 mm x 152 mm;

The Trump administration released a preliminary 2018 budget proposal Thursday outlining many changes the president seeks to make to federal spending.

The budget does not cut spending by much — a little under $14 billion, or about 1 percent of the discretionary budget, which is about a third of the total budget. Most of the cuts go to boost defense spending by $54 billion.

While the budget is preliminary — Congress ultimately is responsible for setting the federal budget — it did cause a stir across the nation and locally.

The Post Register looks at some of the programs that would have significant local impacts if President Donald Trump’s proposed budget were to be enacted as is.

• PAYMENT IN LIEU OF TAXES

One inconspicuous line in Trump’s budget outline proposes a big hit to county budgets. Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, is a program through which federal agencies that own federal lands within a county make contributions to its budget.

Trump’s budget outline doesn’t give a figure for PILT funding, but it does give a hint: “(The budget) supports counties through discretionary funding for the (PILT) program at a reduced level, but in line with average funding for PILT over the past decade.”

That sounds like a stable, mostly flat budget. But it isn’t.

According to a Post Register analysis, bringing PILT in line with the 10-year average would mean somewhere around $4.4 million in lost revenue to counties throughout the state.

The reason is that 2016 was a record year for PILT payments, with Congress appropriating about $452 million nationwide. But the 10-year average is 15 percent lower than last year’s appropriation, partly because funding has grown over time and partly because Congress only funded about half of PILT payments in 2007.

With counties throughout the Gem State receiving a total of $29.4 million last year, a 15 percent reduction implies a loss of $4.4 million in county revenue. In Bonneville County, this would mean a loss of about $190,000, in Fremont $163,000, in Lemhi $145,000, in Custer $109,000, in Butte $50,000.

And those effects would hit some rural counties, including Butte, Lemhi, Clark and Fremont, particularly hard. Local taxpayers in these counties would either face significant reductions in government services such as road repair and snow removal, or face large tax hikes.

In Lemhi County, where the general fund budget is just over $4 million, that would mean about a 4 percent budget cut. The county would be unable to maintain its current level of service unless it took the maximum legal tax hike and dipped into foregone revenue as well.

And since the budget overview doesn’t specify a number, there’s ample room for chicanery. For example, the stimulus package made PILT mandatory spending for several years, meaning it got paid automatically without a Congressional appropriation. If Trump’s budget writers count those years as appropriations of zero, PILT funding could be cut by much more.

Of course, it’s Congress who ultimately controls the purse strings, and Western congressmen have been effective in defending and increasing PILT over the last decade.

FIRE SUPPRESSION

There’s a similar game going on with federal funding to fight forest fires.

“(The budget) fully funds wildland fire preparedness and suppression activities at $2.4 billion, 100 percent of the 10-year average for suppression operations,” the budget outline states.

That’s not out of line with prior budgets, but it doesn’t address a problem that Western lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been trying to solve in recent years: “fire borrowing.”

It’s precisely the use of the 10-year average that has been criticized by Western governors, congressmen and the U.S. Forest Service for causing fire borrowing — meaning that the Forest Service runs out of money in its fire budget and has to take money out of other forest management activities to pay for firefighting. That in turn has meant the agency has been able to devote fewer resources to, among other things, fire prevention.

A 2015 Forest Service report warned that the agency was at a “tipping point,” and the excess costs of fighting recent mega-fires were crippling its ability to manage forests.

“This trend of rising fire suppression costs is predicted to continue as long as the 10-year average serves as the funding model and presents a significant threat to the viability of all other services that support our national forests,” the report concluded.

Fire costs have been rising steadily for years and are projected to continue rising. For many years, using the average of the last 10 years of spending has usually meant that wildfire suppression was underfunded.

The most popular solution — called a “cap adjustment” — favored by many including Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is to set aside a bit under $900 million that the Forest Service could access in years where fire costs are especially high, leaving untouched at least some funds meant for forest management. The proposal has sparked several bipartisan bills with a growing list of supporters, and Barack Obama included it in his 2016 proposed budget.

But the cap adjustment isn’t in Trump’s budget outline. And with a 21 percent cut proposed for the Department of Agriculture, of which the Forest Service is a sub-agency, and a 12 percent cut proposed for the Department of the Interior, of which the Bureau of Land Management is a sub-agency, there would be less non-fire budget to borrow from.

• COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT BLOCK GRANTS

One big impact on local communities from Trump’s proposed budget is the elimination of a program called Community Development Block Grants, or CDBGs.

CDBGs are money the federal government sends to states — and then to some cities, including Idaho Falls — to fund programs to reduce urban blight and alleviate poverty.

Idaho Falls spends or distributes more than $300,000 in CDBGs each year for a wide variety of programs. The city’s most recent report covers 2014 and 2015. In that year, federal CDBG funds were spent on a range of services and improvements around the city, including:

• $69,000 to add a code enforcement officer focusing on low- and middle-income neighborhoods such as the “letter streets.”

• $40,000 to make the VFW’s Veteran’s Memorial Building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

• $40,000 to install curbs, gutters and sidewalks in low- and middle-income neighborhoods.

• $30,000 to improve façades downtown.

• $20,000 to aid Habitat for Humanity to help purchase a home for a low-income family.

• $8,000 in funding for Legal Aid, to be used assisting victims of domestic violence.

About 20 percent of the funds go to administrative costs.

“Elimination of the program will not result in a loss of jobs citywide or create some kind of catastrophic effect in our community,” Mayor Rebecca Casper said. “But it would definitely have an impact.”

• NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

The Trump budget also proposes to eliminate the entire $148 million budget for the National Endowment for the Arts and the entire $148 million budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

That move, while discouraging, didn’t surprise Rick Ardinger, executive director of the Idaho Humanities Council.

Ardinger was in Washington, D.C., last week to meet with Congressman Mike Simpson, who has been an advocate for the arts. Arts and humanities supporters were alerted in January to the possibility of the elimination of arts and humanities funding in Trump’s budget by an article in The Hill.

“Congressman Simpson is a strong advocate for the humanities,” Ardinger said, noting that Simpson expressed his support for the humanities during the meeting.

Simpson’s support for the humanities is well documented. In 2015, Simpson convinced NEH Chairman William Adams to visit Idaho. He also had Adams look over a Museum of Idaho grant application to point out its weaknesses. The NEH later awarded the museum a $500,000 grant that will help finance a 20,000-square-foot expansion. More importantly, Simpson sits on the House Appropriations Committee and the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, which sets the NEH budget.

The NEH provides about $600,000 of the Humanities Council’s $850,000 budget, Ardinger said. The Humanities Council redistributes money to local organizations and individuals. The Salmon Arts Council, Idaho Falls Arts Council, Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association and the Clayton Area Historical Association are just some of the area’s nonprofits to have received Humanities Council grants in the past two years.

“For every federal dollar we receive there’s a $3 to $4 match,” Ardinger said. Grant recipients have to come up with matching funds, volunteer hours or materials to put into their projects on the local level.

The Humanities Council also awards teacher incentive grants for projects such as Idaho Falls School District 91’s annual districtwide fourth-grade Idaho History Rendezvous.

The Humanities Council receives no funding from the state Legislature, Ardinger said. Three-fourths of the states do provide some funding for their humanities councils, he said.

• LEGAL SERVICES CORPORATION

The Legal Services Corporation is one of the 19 agencies the Trump budget proposes to eliminate.

Legal Services Corporation grants are the primary source of funding for Idaho Legal Aid Services Inc., which includes the Idaho Falls office on Constitution Way. (Idaho is the only state that does not provide state funding for civil legal aid.)

Jake Workman, managing attorney of the Idaho Falls office, said that every year the agency helps thousands of low-income Idahoans with legal issues such as protection orders and divorce for victims of domestic violence, wrongful eviction, and seniors’ issues including discrimination and Social Security benefits.

“If it is actually defunded it may be hard to remain open,” Workman said. “It would definitely restrict our ability to continue the work we do.”


Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.