BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal for next year wouldn’t restore any of the steep cuts the state has made in the past three years of economic downturn, with just one exception: partial restoration of $750,000 in grant programs at the state Department of Commerce.
As 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 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.” Thirty-six votes is a majority in the 70-member House.
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 Tuesday.
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, quizzed Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, on how the governor’s budget treats teacher salaries. Hammon said it makes no change from existing law, so the “Students Come First” law’s requirement to shift money out of salary funds 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 increase. 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.
His budget proposal sought to take the sting out of a $19.5 million pay cut for teachers next year. That cut, required by the Students Come First law, 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.
Not everyone is convinced. “I have concerns. … There was a hole that we left for this year,” Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said.
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, added, “It seemed like there’s still a piece missing.”
The grant money that’s been restored to the Department of Commerce will be split between three programs – the Business and Jobs Development Program, the Rural Initiative, and Small Business Assistance Grants. But the new money replaces only a tiny fraction of funds cut from the programs 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.
That’s deceptive, however, said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow.
Otter acknowledged increased enrollment expected at the state’s universities next year with a funding boost, but didn’t 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.”