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Legislature makes deep cuts in proposed school budget

BOISE – Angst-filled Idaho state lawmakers sent a budget for public schools to Gov. Butch Otter on Thursday that contains historic spending cuts, saying it was the best they could do.

State Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, told the House, “I’ve never been in such quicksand as I’ve been this year.”

The budget bill, SB 1418, earlier passed the Senate; it passed the House on Thursday on a 50-19 vote. It spends half the state’s budget in a single bill, and hits schools with $128.5 million in cuts next year.

The budget proposes cuts in teacher and administrator salaries, and shifts money from various line items, such as transportation, field trips and gifted education, to discretionary funds for school districts. That way, districts can decide where to make cuts at the local level. The budget bill would give schools $1.214 billion in state general funds next year – a 1.4 percent decrease from this year in actual numbers, but effectively an 8.4 percent drop due to the removal of federal stimulus money that previously subbed in for general funds – and $1.58 billion in total funds, an overall 7.5 percent drop.

It includes a controversial provision declaring a statewide financial emergency, allowing school districts to reopen negotiated teacher contracts if needed.

House Democrats argued strongly against the bill and attempted to force a vote to amend it through a parliamentary procedure, arguing that the budget violated legislative rules by not reflecting in its fiscal note that it would force local property tax increases.

Said state Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, “Our local school districts are still going to have to find a way to function.” But the Democrats’ move was voted down on a largely party-line vote.

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the Wallace school district passed a supplemental levy last week, because voters there wanted to help out their local schools despite high unemployment and difficult economic times. “In light of the budget crisis we have down here, I think the fiscal note is fine,” Nonini said.

Nonini told the House, “It’s been the economy that has gotten us to this point – the economy is the enemy.”

State Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, a retired high school teacher, said, “We are not forced into this course of action. It is a course of our own choosing if we choose to take it.”

Democrats said the state could have tapped other funds or raised additional revenue in a variety of ways to avoid such deep cuts. But Bell said the state budget is hurting just as Idahoans are hurting in the current recession.

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