Republican Gov. Phil Batt moved closer to fulfilling another of his major campaign promises Monday when the GOP supermajority on the legislative budget committee endorsed his hold-theline package for state aid to public schools.
Budget writers split 14-6 in favor of the $664 million aid level the new governor has recommended in his crusade to check the growth of government.
“This budget is the cornerstone of a house of cards here,” Republican Sen. Dean Cameron of Rupert said. Failing to adopt it, he maintained, would led to the collapse of the governor’s overall financial package.
Reps. James Lucas of Moscow and Hod Pomeroy of Boise were the lone Republicans to side with the four Democrats against the governor and for a $674.3 million plan they claimed would help districts provide the 5 percent pay increase Batt has promised every government worker.
But adoption of the governor’s plan, which still must be approved by the full House and Senate, was all but guaranteed earlier this month when lawmakers enacted his state-financed $40 million property tax reduction plan. Removing that cash from the debate left budget writers little room to stray from Batt’s bare-bones $1.35 billion general tax spending blueprint.
“They voted for the tax bill, and now they’re seeing the reality,” Batt spokeswoman Amy Kleiner said.
But critics warned that the support package would shortchange students and teachers, and Republican state Schools Superintendent Anne Fox, who had sought $682 million in state funds, warned that school districts would have little choice but to seek increased property tax levies to maintain quality operations.
Enactment of the property tax cut - which Batt said was needed to quell a simmering property tax rebellion - and putting in place his education budget leave only relatively minor tinkering to what is left of spending decisions for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is scheduled to write the budget for higher education today, and while it might vote to inject some additional money to assure engineering education expansion in Boise, the governor’s proposal for $168 million in support for the three universities and Lewis-Clark State College should survive intact.
“If your job is to balance the budget, your job is to accept reality and spend the dollars you’ve got,” House Appropriations Chairman Kathleen Gurnsey, R-Boise, said. “The majority bought on to the governor’s plan when they adopted the governor’s $40 million property tax reduction.”
Batt has maintained that his proposal, a 7 percent increase over the $620.5 million schools are receiving this year, will finance a quality education product.
Although less than half the unprecedented $92.5 million increase lawmakers approved for the current school year, the boost recommended by the governor remains one of the largest one-year hikes ever.
But its impact on education itself is muted because of the dramatic changes made in the way the money is being distributed.
The bulk of it now goes for teacher and staff salaries and benefits.
In the past, districts simply received allotments to essentially do with as they wish.
And even with the huge increase authorized in this school year’s aid package, 46 of the 112 school districts statewide relied on additional property tax levies above those financing basic operations.
If Fox’s warning holds true, that number will increase - as it has in past year’s when lawmakers have reined in education support.
This year’s increase was the result of lawmakers heading off a legal challenge to state school support from disgruntled school districts.
Under the budget committee bill, analysts said there is only enough money specifically earmarked for salaries to finance a 2 percent pay raise for teachers.
There is between $16.8 million and $18 million left over to be divided among districts to spend as they want - typically for books, supplies and classroom improvements.
And even if all of it is dumped into pay raises, it would be enough to provide teachers, support staff and administrators about a 3.5 percent raise - one-third less than Batt promised other government workers.
Because of that, Democratic Sen. Marguerite McLaughlin of Orofino proposed siphoning over $10 million from a proposed $33 million prison expansion to help school districts come a little closer to fulfilling the pay raise commitment.
Conservative Republicans, however, contended the capital improvements like the prison needed to be financed in their entirety now so any future surpluses could be earmarked for helping school districts meet $700 million in building needs.
That is the one issue the Legislature has failed to respond to from the lawsuit filed by a number of school districts challenging the state’s financial commitment to a quality education.
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