BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter laid out a grim budget proposal for Idaho on Monday, calling for cutting public education both this year and next, slashing 400 state jobs, phasing out state funding for Idaho Public TV over the next four years and more.
“To those folks who say, ‘Why are you cutting education?’ I say, where else would you have me cut?” a frustrated Otter said after his State of the State message to a joint session of the Legislature.
House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “We all know it’s a tough time. … I think we’re going to see a lot more districts declaring financial emergencies.”
Otter proposed a state budget for next year that spends $83.4 million less than state economists expect from tax revenues. “I just think that we’ve over-guessed the last few years,” he said. GOP legislative leaders said they, too, are skeptical about state tax revenues. “There’s just a real broad stripe of cautiousness,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke.
Minority Democrats decried the plan. “It’s not even status quo – it’s going backwards,” said Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, a retired high school teacher, said, “Further cuts like this I think could have a real impact on what goes on in the classroom.”
But Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I’m not liking it, but I think we’ve got to do it.”
Idaho’s tax revenues have lagged with the recession, and Otter declared that he won’t raise taxes. “It is not our place to impose an additional economic burden on the people of Idaho who already are struggling, or to put a damper on our economic recovery,” he told lawmakers.
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said he’ll try to help the Legislature find ways to make the cuts without hurting student achievement, but warned, “Education is economic development, and we have to ensure that we don’t do long-term damage because it will have an impact on the economy.”
Luna said that if the state is going to cut school funding, it needs to “immediately” enact legislation giving local school districts more flexibility on how they make the cuts.
Said Nonini, “The tough part is 85 percent of those budgets are wages and benefits for teachers.”
Otter and GOP legislative leaders have reached a deal to let school districts that can’t handle this year’s midyear budget cut borrow from state reserves, and then pay the money back out of their state budget for next year. But Nonini said that seems impossible when next year’s budget, too, is being cut. Otter also proposed putting a $10 million livestock research center on hold; and moving $71 million from the state’s tobacco settlement fund into a backup fund to cover Medicaid, if federal matching rates aren’t adjusted. They’re now scheduled to drop precipitously unless Congress acts.