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Eye on Boise: Unallocated money in school budget may stay put

Sun., Jan. 13, 2013, midnight

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers who’ve been hoping to raid Idaho’s public school budget now that voters have rejected three school-reform laws had a setback last week: Doing so would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature’s 20-member joint budget committee.

Redirecting the reform funds within the public school budget, on the other hand, would require only a simple majority on the joint committee.

That wrinkle emerged as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee went over its complicated rules for the benefit of its 12 new members. Legislative Budget Director Cathy Holland-Smith highlighted Rule 13 – to reopen a budget that’s already been set, either to put more money in or to take money out, requires a two-thirds vote of the joint committee.

The various changes in law caused by voter rejection of the three propositions leave $30.6 million unallocated in this year’s public school budget. That money otherwise would have gone to canceled programs like laptop computers for high school students and merit-pay bonuses for teachers. Some was tabbed for other items like a boost in math and science teachers.

Lawmakers have a number of options, including taking no action, which would cause the money to flow at the end of the year into the Public Education Stabilization Fund; redirecting those funds within the public school budget, which would take a simple majority vote of the committee; or redirecting those funds to some other purpose outside the public school budget. Because of Rule 13, that would require a two-thirds vote of the committee.

“From my perspective, the money shouldn’t be taken, and I don’t think you’ll see the votes to have it removed,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the committee. “In my opinion, school districts set budgets and made contracts based on the laws of the land at the time. They shouldn’t be penalized, nor should our children be penalized, based on the failure of these referendums.”

The reason redistribution within the budget wouldn’t require reopening the budget and a two-thirds vote is that the public school budget has “lump-sum authority” written into it, permitting movement of funds within the total. The large budget always has that authority, explained committee budget analyst Paul Headlee, “because it’s built on so many estimates.” Those include estimates of how many students will show up for school, which affects distributions through the state’s complicated school funding formula.

The question of what happens to the now-unallocated money is a major one and “the answer is really in the hands of the Legislature.”

Some lawmakers have been calling for shifting the school funds toward offsetting a hoped-for repeal of the personal property tax on business equipment. But with the two-thirds requirement, that’d be much harder to do.

Lawmakers reach out to Otter

This year’s setting of a revenue estimate by the Legislature had a much different dynamic than in recent years. In the past, lawmakers have sharply undercut the governor’s economic forecast, forcing much larger budget cuts. Instead, this year brought an extending by legislative leaders of an olive branch to Gov. Butch Otter, accepting his numbers, opening the way for discussion of his proposals and signifying perhaps a different, more productive working relationship between lawmakers and Otter as this year’s legislative session begins.

When the Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee voted on the revenue estimate, 14 of the committee’s 18 members went along with a motion from Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, seconded by House Speaker Scott Bedke, to adopt the governor’s numbers, with caveats that things could change later in the session when more actual revenue figures are in. Bedke said low-balling the figure too much could foreclose discussion on a number of fronts. “If we get out in front of this and tighten the number down too much, then I think that will stymie some discussions with regard to personal property tax and its replacement, etc.,” Bedke told the committee. “I think the longer we wait, the more information we have, and that issue and others will be framed better. … So at this time, at this date, I don’t see anything wrong with the governor’s more optimistic number.”

Later, he explained, “The governor’s the leader of our party, and so we are not about picking fights at this point. … We have the luxury of time here.”

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