Idaho schools could get some relief amid budget cuts

The Idaho Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee gathers in the library at Columbia High School in Nampa on Wednesday for the start of its interim meeting, which includes discussion of school funding. (Betsy Russell)
The Idaho Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee gathers in the library at Columbia High School in Nampa on Wednesday for the start of its interim meeting, which includes discussion of school funding. (Betsy Russell)

NAMPA, Idaho - Idaho schools could get about $50 million in a one-time payout in July, no strings attached, if state tax revenues meet projections in the final month of the state’s fiscal year that ends June 30.

“I think it’ll be very significant,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which is holding its interim meeting this week and got the latest estimates on Wednesday. “It may be the very thing that helps ‘em through this tough budget year.”

Schools, already facing deep budget cuts, would have full discretion on how they use the one-time payout. “They can do whatever they feel they need to do,” Cameron said. “They may buy back furlough days. They may use it toward staffing needs.”

But he called for caution, warning that more budget cuts still could lie ahead.

The state budget for schools for next year includes a 1.6 percent cut in salary-based apportionment, the main state funding source for salaries for teachers and administrators, and the following year, that apportionment will be cut by 4.2 percent as part of the new school reform laws, with those funds shifted elsewhere, including to technology investments. “That’s already built in in statute,” Cameron said.

Plus, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, Wayne Hammon, is warning that Idaho faces more budget challenges in the future, even though at this point, the state’s tax revenue is running $66.1 million ahead of projections for the current fiscal year.

A majority of whatever year-end surplus materializes must go to maintenance-of-effort requirements for education and related programs that were attached to federal stimulus funds Idaho already accepted. Under estimates presented to lawmakers Wednesday, schools would get $50.7 million, or about $3,587 per classroom, and community colleges would get $5.5 million.

Hammon said that essentially means most of the current surplus already is spent, and warned of pressing needs ahead, drained reserves and falling federal funding. “Despite this year’s revenue coming in ahead of the forecast, there is no budget surplus,” Hammon said in a memo distributed to all state lawmakers and agency heads. “All of us in state government need to prepare now for an additional round of budget cuts – this time in federal funds that will not be replaced with state resources. Our first priorities for any new revenue must be education and restoring our rainy day accounts.”

Idaho has seen three straight years of historic budget cuts to schools.

The $50 million estimate for a payout to schools assumes June state tax revenues come in right on target, which is by no means assured. June typically is the fourth-largest revenue month for the state, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the House co-chair of the joint budget committee, noted that June has brought bad budget news in some past years.

Said Cameron, “We’d feel better about June had May been a better number.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, who serves on the budget panel, said, “I’m anxious to see the final number.” He said his local school district has been careful to budget based only on money it knows it’ll get, “but it’s a roller coaster, and it’s hard to plan.”

Any additional payout will be good news, Eskridge said. “It’s more money, and it’s also a good indicator of our revenue situation – we’re getting more than what we thought.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC vice chair, said, “We have to remember that there wasn’t any guarantee that that money would come. We’re always guessing what is going to happen in the economy, because we don’t know. I’d much rather be in this position, where we send money out … than cutting in the middle of the year.”

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