BOISE - Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal for next year wouldn’t restore any of the steep budget cuts Idaho’s made in the past three years of economic downturns, with just one exception: Partial restoration of $750,000 in grant programs at the state Department of Commerce.
As state lawmakers began examining the details of Otter’s agenda Tuesday, some concerns surfaced about that approach, which minority Democrats blasted.
“I think to say, well, we’ve got enough money for tax breaks, we have enough money to put into a savings account, but we don’t have enough money to restore the services that civilization depends upon, I think is fallacious thinking,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, who led a testy Democratic response to the Republican governor’s agenda Tuesday morning.
Democrats hold only 20 of the 105 Idaho legislative seats. Despite their small numbers, minority members said they expect to work with the majority and influence this year’s debate. “I think there’s a number of areas here where not only will they want us to work with them, they’ll need us to work with them,” Rusche said, “because frankly, in the House that 36th vote is going to be hard to come by.”
Majority Republicans who a day earlier applauded Otter’s proposals to increase public school funding by $31.6 million and higher education funding by $16.9 million were learning more details of the proposals on Tuesday.
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, quizzed Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, about how the governor’s budget treats salary-based apportionment and the teacher salary grid in the public school budget. Hammon said it makes no change from existing law, meaning the “Students Come First” law’s requirement to shift money out of the salary fund into technology boosts and merit-pay programs stands.
The $31.6 million increase for public schools in the governor’s budget proposal includes $11.2 million for student population growth, and virtually all the rest goes for requirements of the Students Come First law, which phases in laptop computers for every high school student, a new focus on online learning, and teacher merit pay.
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, a Republican, had requested a $69.3 million, 5.7 percent increase in school funding next year. But he said he was “very happy’ with the governor’s 2.6 percent hike. Luna noted that Otter also proposed one-time, conditional pay boosts for public school teachers that would total $26 million if state revenues hit targets.
“For the first time in four years, we’re actually talking about how we’re going to spend more money for education, not how we’re going to get by with less,” Luna said.
Luna’s budget proposal sought to take the sting out of a $19.5 million pay cut for teachers next year called for in the Students Come First law, which would shift that amount out of salary funds into merit-pay bonuses and technology; Luna wanted to give teachers an offsetting raise. Otter chose not to fund that.
Luna maintained the conditional one-time pay boosts would have the same effect. “The money gets put back in,” he said.
Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “I have concerns. … There was a hole that we left for this year.”
“It seemed like there’s still a piece missing,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.
Hammon told the Legislature’s joint budget committee Tuesday, “In the governor’s recommendation, those reductions that have been made by this committee and the Legislature over the last few years have not been restored, with the exception of those grants at the Department of Commerce.”
Three programs, the Business and Jobs Development Program, the Rural Initiative, and Small Business Assistance Grants, would split that money, which replaces only a tiny fraction of funds cut from them in the past three years; the Rural Initiative alone has lost $2.6 million from its annual budget.
Idaho’s colleges and universities have seen some of the deepest state budget cuts through the recession, with this year’s state funding level less than 2001 state funding levels. The governor’s proposed $16.9 million increase in higher education funding next year, an 8.1 percent increase, would bring higher ed funding up to slightly above its 2005 level.
“It sounds like more than it really is,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow.
That’s because Otter chose to acknowledge increased enrollment expected at the state’s universities next year with a funding boost, but not to grant the colleges’ requests for the same treatment of their enrollment growth over the past years, during which the student ranks have swelled while funding dropped.
Said Ringo, “I hope the Legislature will take a good second look at some of these proposals and try to do better.”