A $4.1 million cut in general tax support for public schools won final approval on Monday from a state Senate apparently seriously concerned about the impact of Idaho’s slowing economy on tax receipts.
The unanimous vote by the Senate, matching the unanimity of the House a week earlier, sent the bill to Gov. Phil Batt.
The governor recommended the approach to maintain classroom support at levels promised a year ago so that an automatic statewide property tax increase was not triggered.
The emergency appropriation simply eliminates $1 million earmarked for Education Department school reform efforts.
It also replaces $12.3 million in general tax revenue with $9.2 million from the budget reserve account and $3.1 from the education endowment - money the schools were constitutionally entitled to anyway.
The action was required after Batt imposed a 2 percent across-the-board budget cut last summer to bring planned state spending into line with tax collections that have been increasing at a slower rate than expected.
The financial manipulation will have no effect on the actual amount of state aid that goes into Idaho’s classrooms.
But it reduces by $3.1 million the amount of endowment money the schools could receive next year to help offset the impact of Batt’s austere budget plan.
Conservative State Schools Superintendent Anne Fox has said that Batt’s plan is at least $10 million short of what is needed.
It is also the first time the Legislature has opted to actually cut back the general tax commitment to public education.
In other budget crunches, taxes were raised or deeper cuts were made in other parts of the state budget to preserve the school aid package.
But Batt, and GOP lawmakers even before his inauguration 13 months ago, have been arguing that the state should be shifting its emphasis from increasing the amount of state aid to changing the way education is delivered in Idaho.
Still, the state remains one of the lowest in the country in money spent per public school student.
And Republican Sen. Stan Hawkins of Ucon went so far as to tell his colleagues that restoration of much of the held-back cash was probably unnecessary.
That’s because Fox announced two weeks ago that slower enrollment growth and a large number of retirements by top-scale teachers have created a $7 million surplus in the part of the state aid package earmarked for teacher salaries.
“So we’re going to throw the same amount of money at less kids,” Hawkins said, and that should be kept in mind when the state aid package is set for the 1996-1997 school year, probably next week.
Some lawmakers have talked about removing the windfall $7 million from basic classroom support - where it is headed now - and designating it for building maintenance or even saving it to augment next year’s aid total, which is now proposed at $689.5 million.
That is up from the revised total of $659.9 for this year.
But most lawmakers expect the money will be left for use by schools this year and as a cushion for the potentially even more austere financial picture next year.