Idaho’s lawmakers pass budget, head home
BOISE – Idaho lawmakers adjourned their legislative session Thursday after 88 days, running nearly a week longer than planned amid a deadlock in the Senate over the budget for public schools.
In the end, the budget that passed both houses Thursday morning was identical to the original, giving schools a 2.2 percent boost in state funding next year to $1.3 billion. But rancor remained over the direction of education policy in Idaho: In November, voters repealed the Students Come First school reform laws that lawmakers had enacted in 2011.
A committee of legislators and a panel of education stakeholders organized by Gov. Butch Otter will examine education issues and hold hearings throughout the state this summer. The governor’s panel announced Thursday that it will hold a community forum in Coeur d’Alene on April 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the North Idaho College student union.
Lawmakers voted to make it tougher to qualify initiatives or referendum measures for the ballot, requiring signatures from 18 of 35 legislative districts where there previously was no geographic requirement.
They also authorized extra-heavy trucks on any non-freeway route in the state if either the Idaho Transportation Department or local highway authorities approve the routes. North Idaho officials opposed that move; those trucks currently are allowed only on 35 designated southern Idaho routes.
The session also saw lawmakers come together for bipartisan support of Otter’s proposal for a state-based health insurance exchange, though Republicans had been deeply divided on the issue.
A scaled-back bill to cut the personal property tax on business equipment hands $20 million in tax cuts to Idaho businesses, but also protects local government services through state reimbursements.
And lawmakers mostly followed Otter’s recommendations in setting a conservative state budget that includes small increases, but still leaves the state spending less than it did in 2009 – particularly for schools — and provides no pay raises for state employees.
Idaho’s state budget for next year was set at $2.78 billion, a 3 percent increase from this year but a $178 million reduction from the general fund budget in 2009.
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, called it a “very difficult session.”
“I think we got through a number of pieces of important legislation this year, like personal property tax, education funding,” said freshman Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden.
Said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, “I’m going to be glad to go home.”
Perhaps fittingly, the final bill to come up was one of a slew of proposals from the Idaho School Boards Association to revive various pieces of Proposition 1, the voter-rejected measure that sought to roll back teachers’ collective bargaining rights. The bill, SB 1040a, lets school districts reduce teacher salaries from one year to the next, something Idaho law now prohibits.
“Teachers have good jobs compared to those who have no jobs,” said Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, the bill’s House sponsor. “And in many places in Idaho we have folks with no jobs who are still struggling to keep their homes and their businesses and pay their property tax to support their local schools.”
Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, urged the House to reject the bill. “This bill guts teachers’ contracts,” she said, arguing that districts already have a way to cut teacher salaries if they declare a financial emergency.
Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, said, “The voters of the state of Idaho said no – so I’m saying no.”
Ringo told the House, “How do we attract good teachers? I don’t think through bills like this one.” She said, “I think we’re going to have a dickens of a time recruiting them with bills like this.”
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, spoke in favor of the bill. “School boards have been given the responsibility to manage their districts, but they are unable to appropriately manage 80 to 90 percent of the state general funds that come because there is law restricting reduction of salaries,” she said. “To me that is like playing the piano and having 10 fingers available, but only being able to use one or two. You just can’t get the job done.”
The bill passed the House on a 47-21 vote, with nine Republicans joining 12 House Democrats opposing it; the Senate had approved it 21-14 on March 29. It now goes to Otter.
The governor gave lawmakers high marks for their just-completed session, but acknowledged there were big issues left for next year, from education policy to road funding to whether to expand Idaho’s Medicaid program.
Joked Otter, “We left some things undone so we could have a reason to come back.”