March 25, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho House backs first school budget cut

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, talks on the phone while the House’s chief clerk, Bonnie Alexander, is forced to read an entire bill - at great length - thanks to a parliamentary maneuver by House Democrats, who oppose the bill. The measure, HB 256 sponsored by Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, cuts state reimbursement to school districts for student busing costs.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - The House has voted 50-20 in favor of HB 256, the measure to cut state reimbursements to school districts for student busing costs - Idaho’s first concrete move toward cutting school funding as the state copes with a budget crunch.

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s sponsor, told the House, “We’ve heard that this whole piece of legislation is unnecessary - I couldn’t disagree more.” When the Legislature’s joint budget committee sets the public school budget on Friday, it’ll “more than likely” cut the budget from this year’s level, a first for Idaho, he said. Nonini said his bill will help spread the cuts so they don’t all come out of teachers’ pay. “We’re trying to avoid deep, deep cuts to teachers’ salaries,” he said.

The measure would save the state $4.1 million a year by trimming the amount school districts get for busing, and eliminating all funding for transportation for field trips. One school district, in Boise, would bear nearly $1.5 million of the cuts.

All but one of the House’s 18 Democrats voted against HB 256. The lone exception: Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, voted for the bill. All but three of the House’s 52 Republicans voted in favor of the bill. The three exceptions: Reps. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, and Boise Republicans Lynn Luker and Cliff Bayer.

Democrats used a rare parliamentary move to force the bill to be read in full by the House’s chief clerk before it could be debated - a move that delayed the debate by about 15 minutes.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said his caucus will use the means it has to take a stand against education cuts. “We as a minority have limited procedural powers, and it’s important when we have these issues that are really of monumental impact, like the support for kids in our schools, we’ll use the tools that we can.”

He added that with the significance of the bill, which he said “starts the deconstruction of support for public education, I think spending 15 minutes hearing it is not unreasonable.” He wouldn’t say if Democrats plan more such actions.

Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, said she was “blind-sided” when the bill was introduced, though she’d been part of a bipartisan committee that negotiated consensus legislation that cleared the House a day earlier regarding temporarily suspending various state laws to allow for financial emergencies. “HB 256 is both unnecessary and unfair to all three of the school districts that are in my legislative district,” Chavez said.

Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, told the House, “We are taking an unprecedented step to cut public education for the first time in Idaho’s history - let that sink in, folks.”

The bill’s changes, including the end for field trip funding, are permanent. “We don’t want to eliminate these field trips,” Nonini said. “This is tough stuff, people. … There are occasional times in financial times like this that we’re going to be forced to make tough votes. HB 256 is one of these times, but we have to do what’s right for the whole state.”

Nonini said when the economy improves, lawmakers could change the law in a future year to bring back field trip funding.

Transportation costs are “overhead,” Nonini said. “Each dollar spent on transportation is a dollar that doesn’t make it into the classroom. … That’s where education takes place.”

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “These children will need to continue to get to school, so what will happen? … Transportation is not a luxury.”

The bill still needs Senate passage and the governor’s signature to become law. Nonini has another school-funding bill pending, too, to trim back teacher pay by freezing movement on the salary schedule for a year, and phase out an early retirement incentive program.

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