BOISE - Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, blasted an early retirement incentive program for teachers as a “golden parachute” Tuesday, and said teachers who no longer want to teach should “just gracefully retire and go to the golf course.”
His comments sparked a protest to House leadership by Democrats on the House Education Committee, which Nonini chairs. They came as Nonini championed a last-minute bill to retroactively eliminate the early-retirement program and make other changes in public school funding - even though the Senate has specifically rejected that idea.
The fracas came amid open political warfare between the House and the Senate, as the House pushed Tuesday to unilaterally adjourn its session by Wednesday night - even though the state constitution would force it back into session within three days if the Senate doesn’t go along. The last time either house tried such a gambit was in 1980, when the Senate adjourned on a Thursday. The House refused to accept its adjournment, and the senators were back in session by Monday.
“I know they were madder than hops when they came back,” recalled former state Rep. Bob Geddes, R-Preston, a longtime lawmaker who’s filling in this week as a substitute for his son, Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs.
Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, a retired teacher, protested Nonini’s comments to the speaker of the House. “People that are either married to teachers or have been teachers themselves were really offended by it,” Boe said. “These are professionals that have never earned really high salaries.” She said Speaker Lawerence Denney told her he’d speak to Nonini.
Nonini confirmed that he’d done so. “It wasn’t meant to be offensive to the minority party - they took it that way,” Nonini said.
During the Education Committee meeting Tuesday, Nonini spoke out against the early retirement program for teachers, which pays about $4 million a year in retirement bonuses in an effort to save the state money in the long run, by allowing districts to replace experienced teachers with younger, lower-paid ones. The bonuses average $18,000 per teacher.
“It’s going into a teacher’s pocket as a golden parachute to leave the profession,” Nonini declared, saying the state could save $4 million to spend on students next year by not paying the early-retirement incentives.
“I have a hard time paying those people that money, and that’s a personal opinion,” Nonini told the Education Committee. “If they don’t want to be in the classroom any longer, they’re tired of their profession, then maybe they should just gracefully retire and go to the golf course.”
The House passed legislation to phase out the program over the next two years, but the Senate amended the bill, HB 262, to eliminate that clause. The amended bill - which still contains a freeze in teacher movement on a salary grid that would otherwise give them raises for attaining more experience - won final passage in the House Tuesday on a 46-20 vote, and is headed to the governor’s desk.
The Senate also amended another House bill on education cuts, restoring funding for busing for academic field trips. That bill, HB 256, also won final House passage Tuesday, and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee passed a measure to fund the field trips by trimming back textbook expenditures next year.
The textbook budget already was being trimmed by 40 percent next year as Idaho faces its first-ever out-and-out cuts in its public school budget. Now, textbook funding for next year will drop to just $1.7 million statewide. The joint committee also agreed to cover the early retirement program next year with money from the state’s multimillion-dollar public education stabilization fund.
Oddly, just hours after the joint budget committee met, the House half of it met on its own and passed new, House versions of 14 budget bills that the joint committee already had introduced. The plan is for the House to pass all those bills today, rather than wait for the Senate to send them over, so it can adjourn.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, bemoaned the move, the first such split on budget-setting since 2003. “I’m truly sorry that we’ve come to this impasse,” she said.
Nonini’s new education bill, HB 339, eliminates the early retirement program retroactively to March 1 of this year. It also makes several other changes in school funding, including allowing additional flexibility for school districts as they cope with budget cuts - something the districts want - and changing state reimbursements to school districts for online instruction, an idea championed by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna.
Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the author of the Senate amendment that sought to keep the early retirement program in place, said he started off agreeing with eliminating the program, but became concerned that the state actually could lose money, rather than saving $4 million.
“The more I look at it, the less confident I am in there being savings,” Goedde said.
Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, a former school principal, said he favors a state study to determine if the incentive brings the state savings or not. “It does make sense that it’s a long-term savings and a short-term savings, so let’s look at it,” Hammond said. “I don’t really see it as an issue of trying to provide a benefit to anybody but the school district and the state of Idaho.”