BOISE — Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney forgot to budget for the 2020 presidential primary, creating an unpleasant $2 million surprise for legislative budget writers who set his office’s budget on Wednesday.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee had already set all but 4 percent of the state’s general fund budget for next year, working through it agency by agency over the past month, when Denney’s came up with a $2 million hole in it.

“Obviously, budget writers never like surprises, and the presidential primary is an additional line item in here,” said Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene. He asked Denney, “I’m just curious as to what happened and why that wasn’t included, and then maybe the protocols you’re putting in place to make sure it isn’t a surprise next time.”

Denney responded, “Y’know, last time around was the first time for the presidential primary, and it was not included in a regular budget bill, it was included in the bill actually for the presidential primary. And it slipped through the cracks.”

“This is in the actual budget, so I think from here on out, here every four years it will show up,” Denney said, “so I don’t think it will fall through the cracks. We will notice from here on out.”

“That would be very good,” said Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, JFAC co-chair.

A group of JFAC members who worked on the budget scrambled, but could find no other alternative than to add a $2 million unexpected line item from the state general fund to the budget for the Secretary of State’s office next year.

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, joked, “We don’t want to confuse effort with achievement. We spent a lot of effort.”

Bair said, “It didn’t work out the way we had hoped, but at the end of the day we have a budget.”

The Legislature in 2015 created a stand-alone presidential primary, to be held on the second Tuesday in March in each presidential election year, for the Republican presidential primary election in 2016, and required the state to pick up all the costs. That’s two months before Idaho’s existing primary election date; the idea was to increase Idaho’s profile in the presidential nominating process by holding an earlier primary.

The bill was controversial and drew bipartisan opposition, but was sponsored by House and Senate GOP leaders, and passed and was signed into law by then-Gov. Butch Otter.

At the time, only the Idaho Republican Party, whose primary elections are closed to all non-party members, and the state’s tiny Constitution Party were holding presidential primary elections; Democrats were choosing their presidential delegates through caucuses.

Last June at its state convention, the Idaho Democratic Party voted to switch to a presidential primary, rather than caucuses, in 2020. “We’re already paying for it,” party Chairman Bert Marley said then. “It’s coming out of our tax money. We decided if we’re paying for it, we might as well be using it, too.”

The budget set for the Idaho Secretary of State’s office for next year, approved on a unanimous vote in the joint committee, came to $5.7 million in state general funds, a 50.7 percent increase, because of the additional $2 million item.

The budget still needs approval from the full House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they’re set by the 20-member joint committee. JFAC is scheduled to finish setting state agency budgets on Friday.

Denney, 71, a farmer and former speaker of the Idaho House, is in his fifth year as Idaho’s Secretary of State; in November, he was re-elected to a second four-year term.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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