economic forum

From left: Idaho Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, Rep. Jon Weber, R-Rexburg, and Rep. James D. Ruchti, D-Pocatello, discuss the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 during a luncheon with local chambers of commerce members at the Shoshone-Bannock Casino Hotel on Wednesday.

FORT HALL — Four Eastern Idaho lawmakers who participated in a Wednesday panel discussion worry the state may have too much of a good thing when it comes to its billions in unused federal pandemic relief funds.

The state Legislature is responsible for appropriating nearly $2.6 billion of the $5.6 billion Idaho received under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The legislators said they’ve allocated just over $780 million to state agencies thus far — meaning there are still $1.8 billion up for grabs, which the legislature has several years, in some cases until 2024, to dole out.

The $5.6 billion the state received in 2021 is just a fraction of the roughly $17.7 billion Idaho has received from the federal government since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country and upended the economy.

Idaho Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, who sat on the panel with three other legislators at the Shoshone-Bannock Casino Hotel during a regional Chambers of Commerce meeting, said she’s concerned about the amount of money Idaho has received and not yet spent.

Horman said it’s “deeply troubling” to her that Idaho is on track to be more than 50 percent funded by the federal government if Congress passes another stimulus package to accompany those it already passed in the last two years.

“We all know what happens with federal money. It comes with strings. It comes with control,” she said, adding, “I cannot overstate the significance of that shift and its importance to our state sovereignty and to our ability to define our own destiny as a state. It is deeply troubling to me.”

Horman paneled the discussion alongside Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, Rep. Jon Weber, R-Rexburg, and Rep. James D. Ruchti, D-Pocatello.

Bair said he’s not confident Idaho will even be able to spend all the money it has received because of its small population relative to other states, coupled with the amount of “red tape” the federal government has imposed on agencies that request to use the funds available to them.

“I’ve got a brother who serves as county commissioner in Bingham County. They have lots of projects they want to do, but they have yet to have the courage to pull the trigger,” he said. “Because they have to be able to report to the federal government what they’ve done with those dollars, and if they don’t get approval, they have to pay those dollars back.”

Bair said the American Rescue Plan funds differ from Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds allocated at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, in that state and local governments could use the funds in more flexible ways than ARPA allows.

Because of this and Idaho’s position as a smaller state, Horman said, it’s “going to be very difficult” to spend all the money that’s available.

“To put it in terms of a an analogy, it’s like being given a $5 million check and told you could go into the dollar store and buy anything you want. If you bought everything in the store, you would still have money left over,” she said. “Idaho is one of those states that just got the mandatory minimum.

“We’re a smaller state with a smaller budget by comparison to a lot of states, and so literally, it’s just going to be very difficult to spend all of these funds, even though we do have some time. It’s just that much money.”

The legislators said they’re still receiving guidance from the federal government on how to best use the funds and the processes to which recipient agencies have to adhere in order to clear accountability hurdles.

They’re hoping to have more clarity ahead of the 2022 legislative session, during which the legislature will be tasked with allocating more funds.

“This is a complicated deal and even now we’re still receiving federal guidance,” Bair said. “There are still lots of programs that we don’t know about because there just simply hasn’t been guidance issued, and we won’t be able to make decisions on how appropriate until we get that guidance.”