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Idaho Voices

Luna says public schools can’t take more cuts

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna says Idaho’s public schools need a 9.2 percent increase in state general funds next year, just to keep even and accommodate more students.

In his budget request for fiscal year 2011, Luna is calling for a $1.3 billion general fund appropriation for public schools next year, $1.7 billion in total funds. That’s up from $1.2 billion in general funds this year – the first year that Idaho’s schools have taken a cut in state funds from what they received the year before. This year’s school budget, in state funds, was 7.7 percent below last year’s $1.3 billion level.

Luna said his budget request for next year would require a $112.7 million increase in general funds to replace federal stimulus money that helped prop up this year’s school budget and to fund growth. He’s also calling for a $28.1 million appropriation from the state’s Public Education Stabilization Fund to finish closing that gap. In total funds – including federal stimulus money, some of which was targeted to specific programs – this year’s school budget was set at $1.7 billion.

Luna said this year’s cuts in education went as far as the state can afford to go.

“At that point he drew the line in the sand and said we can’t go any further without hurting student achievement,” said Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath. “That’s the discussion he’s going to have with lawmakers. I think there’s a lot of support out there for keeping education whole.”

Drug settlement brings millions

Idaho has reached a $13 million settlement with drug manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co., the state’s biggest financial recovery under the Idaho Consumer Protection Act aside from the 1998 tobacco settlement.

The state sued the pharmaceutical manufacturer over its marketing of Zyprexa, an antipsychotic drug, saying the drug company “engaged in deceptive marketing” and “failed to warn health care providers of serious side effects, resulting in significant costs to Idaho Medicaid.”

Part of the money will go to reimburse the federal government, which pays part of the cost of Idaho’s Medicaid program, while about $6.9 million will go to the state’s general fund.

“Off-label promotion of pharmaceutical drugs is a deceptive practice and creates unnecessary risks to consumers,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said. “In this instance, the company’s practices also resulted in additional costs to Idaho Medicaid, at the expense of Idaho taxpayers. Fortunately, we were able to reach this settlement and recover those taxpayer dollars.”

Nellis: Fund higher education

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis has announced his plan for the 6 percent midyear budget cut at the university ordered by Gov. Butch Otter. UI considered employee furloughs but decided against them for now. Much of the university’s $7.1 million in cuts will come from personnel costs, including eliminating vacant positions and travel; there also will be cuts in operating expenses, capital outlay and reserves.

Nellis said the plan “required exceedingly difficult choices, and virtually every part of the university has been impacted.” He also called on the state to “protect the essential nature of its investment in higher education” and declared, “Continued disinvestment should no longer be an option.”

Hunger hits close to home

October is Hunger Awareness Month, and the state marked the occasion when Lt. Gov. Brad Little joined an array of religious leaders, antihunger activists and children from the Boise Urban Garden School to make it official. The children presented a basket of locally grown produce from farmers markets and community gardens around the state, and Little said he’s seen firsthand in his hometown of Emmett the success of interfaith efforts to get fresh, local produce to the needy.

Idaho is ranked as the 24th hungriest state, Little noted, and it has the 10th highest percentage of food-insecure children under age 5.

“It is important at this point in time, particularly in Idaho where we have so much agricultural products, that there are people who are hungry,” Little said, calling on Idahoans to “be aware of the necessity to take care of our own.”

The event came as a recent survey by the Northwest Area Foundation found that in the past year:

55 percent of Idahoans said they’ve cut down on the amount they’ve spent on food.

32 percent had problems paying for basic necessities like their mortgage, rent or heat.

33 percent had trouble affording medical care.

26 percent said someone in their household has lost a job

38 percent said someone in their household has had their work hours cut.

“This poll confirms what we are seeing in Idaho,” said Mary Chant, executive director of the Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho. “We’re seeing a whole new group of people who’ve never experienced financial difficulties of this magnitude. It’s the former high-earning, two-income families who’ve lost a job and have a heavy debt load. It’s putting a huge stress on our services, because we’re still working with all the low-income families we’ve typically helped in the past.”