Idaho’s Land Board members – who include the governor, the attorney general, the state superintendent of schools, the secretary of state and the state controller – are ticked at the Legislature for backing them into a corner on school endowment funding.
The Land Board a year ago lowered expected payouts to beneficiaries, including public schools, from the state’s permanent endowment funds, based on earnings. But when the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee got ready to set the public school budget, it decided to rely on the fund paying schools a 5 percent payout rather than the 4 percent the board earlier had set.
Various staff members from JFAC, the Endowment Board and the Land Board worked on the plan, and several Land Board members were consulted. But the board as a whole didn’t appreciate JFAC acting before the board made the call. New projections that the state will make an extra $5 million from increased timber harvests on state endowment lands next year allow the increased funding, which would give the public schools an additional $4 million-plus next year.
“I’m concerned when I hear discussion that perhaps there’s a challenge that’s been issued by one branch to another,” Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said. “I don’t think that serves the public.”
Said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, “The horse has left the barn and running, and this horse is still at the starting gate. I don’t quarrel with the figures – I quarrel with the process.”
The Endowment Board met in an emergency meeting this morning and approved the 5 percent payout. After much discussion, the Land Board then also voted to approve the figure, during its meeting this morning, over the objections of state Superintendent of Schools Marilyn Howard.
“This to me is going a dangerous step forward by giving a signal that, in a sense, it’s OK to balance the budget with money that’s intended to be a consistent stream over time for the schools of this state,” she said.
Ysursa declared that the Endowment Fund “is not and will not ever, on our watch, turn into the water pollution control fund,” a fund lawmakers traditionally have tapped into to cover a variety of budget shortfalls. “This fund is too important for that.”
The Land Board called legislative budget director Jeff Youtz forward and worked him over, giving him plenty to pass along to JFAC about how to do such things in the future. “This has been a good discussion – Jeff, I’m glad you were here,” Kempthorne said. “We did not accept anyone’s perception that this was a challenge. We don’t want to get into that, because we have the last say.”