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Idaho taps stimulus for schools, Medicaid

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers have taken their first formal action to spend federal stimulus money, channeling a chunk of it into this year’s public schools budget.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to cut this year’s budget for public schools by $85.1 million, but immediately fill in the hole with an equal amount of federal stimulus money. The cut was required in order to qualify for the replacement money.

“We’re taking advantage of the … stimulus dollars to make sure that we’re holding public schools harmless in 2009,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.

Lawmakers had previously planned to fill that hole in this year’s school budget with money from the state’s $114 million public education stabilization fund, a reserve fund specifically for schools, to prevent any mid-year cuts to schools. Now, that fund will stay intact for use later.

The move was one of a series legislative budget writers approved Wednesday, which also included a boost to this year’s Medicaid budget thanks to the increase in federal funding for Medicaid this year included in the stimulus bill.

That change will prevent the Health & Welfare Department from having to carry over $16 million in expenses from this year into next year and will cover $4 million in other anticipated cost increases, but won’t head off the cuts in Medicaid services that lawmakers already have decided to make this year, cutting the Medicaid budget by 6 percent.

Overall, the change means Idaho will spend $52 million less in state funds on Medicaid this year, between the increased federal matching funds and the cutbacks, which included trimming hours of service for some patients.