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Mon., March 25, 2013, 7:37 a.m.

Final hurdles: Public schools budget

Painful votes on the insurance exchange are now behind the Idaho Legislature, reports AP reporter John Miller and the upcoming Senate vote on cutting business personal property taxes by $20 million appears less disputed than once expected. As lawmakers prepare to adjourn this Friday, however, a dispute over the 2014 public education budget — the $1.3 billion behemoth that's the state's biggest single spending plan — could provide some fireworks. The House passed it 52-16 last Friday; it's now awaiting a vote in the Senate. Click below for Miller's full report.

Bickering over Idaho ed budget last 2013 hurdle
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Painful votes on the insurance exchange are now behind the Idaho Legislature, and the upcoming Senate vote on cutting business personal property taxes by $20 million appears less disputed than once expected.

As lawmakers prepare to adjourn this Friday, however, a dispute over the 2014 public education budget — the $1.3 billion behemoth that's the state's biggest single spending plan — could provide some fireworks.

The House passed it 52-16 last Friday, over objections from some that the budget committee overstepped its role and strayed into the realm of policy-making. This is the latest flare-up in a long, philosophical fight between the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and other committees over what's the appropriate balance between setting spending levels and directing policy.

Now, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, and his vice chair, Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, are mulling ways to change or potentially derail the budget.

"The K-12 budget is still an open, unresolved issue," Mortimer said Friday.

Among other things, the education budget directs some $11 million toward restoring teacher pay based on education level and experience — the so-called "steps and lanes" — that were frozen in 2010 to save money amid the recession-caused budget crisis.

Mortimer, also on the budget committee, would have preferred that money be directed to school operations, not teacher pay. He lost on a 15-5 budget vote earlier this month, and it still rankles him.

"It doesn't do any good to provide that money to teachers, if our schools can't continue to operate," he said.

Mortimer and Goedde are also unhappy about the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee's majority decision to direct $3 million toward so-called "technology pilot projects" — money to be awarded by the state Department of Education and its head, Tom Luna, to districts via competitive grants.

Luna has said these projects will help determine which ones have the potential to be rolled out statewide — with more support than technology initiatives in his failed "Students Come First" education overhaul.

But Goedde contends the pilot-project proposal, among other items in the education budget like $21 million for teacher merit bonuses, never underwent proper Senate Education Committee scrutiny or a public hearing he says is warranted for substantive policy decisions.

"As things stand now, I am planning to oppose public school budget," Goedde said.

That's not the only complaint about the $3 million pilot project funding.

It's also the target of behind-the-scenes grumbling among those who suspect some of it may eventually be earmarked to help pay for equipping 500 students at Paul Elementary School with Apple iPad tablets, a program started in 2012.

Paul Elementary is located in the district of Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert and the budget committee's co-chairman.

While Cameron did help connect Paul school officials with the Utah-based company that's funding the program's first year, he said he's not interfering in whether it Paul Elementary wins any future state money to cover the roughly $300,000 annual cost.

Luna's office will make the final decision, should Paul apply as its superintendent, Scott Rogers, said he intends to do.

"This money is not promoting any one school, any one program, or any one vendor," Cameron said. "We trust the best and brightest proposals will rise to the top."

Cameron added Mortimer's displeasure over restoring state funding for the "steps and lanes" is misplaced, too.

In 2010, they were frozen to help Idaho balance its budget, he said, but that was accompanied by a promise to teachers to restore them, once Idaho's state tax revenue had recovered sufficiently to do it.

That's a budget decision, Cameron said, not some unwarranted foray into policy.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said he's well aware of this dispute, which has been simmering for weeks.

He's optimistic it will be resolved, but acknowledges failure on the Senate floor could jeopardize next Friday's prospective adjournment date.


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.




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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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