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Idaho Senate kills school budget, derailing planned end to session

Wed., March 27, 2013, 12:44 p.m.

BOISE – In a stunning and historic move Wednesday, the Idaho Senate defeated the public school budget by one vote – sending lawmakers back to the drawing board and derailing plans to end Idaho’s legislative session this week.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who led the Senate revolt against the House-passed spending plan, said he believes the House and Senate education committees need to hold hearings on two proposals that had been included in the budget: $21 million for merit-pay bonuses and professional development for teachers at the discretion of local school districts, and $3 million for technology pilot project grants.

“I think leadership’s going to have to carve out time for that to happen,” Goedde said. “We’re here to do it the right way. … There was no public input on policy changes.”

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I think at a minimum, you’re adding another week to the session.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, Senate Finance vice-chair, said, “Both sides seem to be pretty dug in at the moment. I don’t know if cooler heads will prevail or what happens next.”

Idaho’s state budget process includes a joint committee of 10 House and 10 Senate members who agree on budget plans before they go to either house; this budget, HB 323, passed on a 15-5 vote there, in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and then passed the House 52-16. It had backing from an array of groups, from the Idaho School Boards Association to the Idaho Education Association to state schools Superintendent Tom Luna. The last time a school budget was defeated in either house was in 1992.

But Goedde was confident he could defeat it in the Senate. “I thought I had it 19-16,” he said; the vote was 18-17.

Goedde said he had no problem with the bottom-line budget figure set for schools. “My problem lies in some specific areas in the budget,” he told the Senate. He objected to restoring cuts in teacher pay made through a two-year freeze on the state’s teacher salary schedule, and said schools have gotten more for salaries through the recession than other state agencies.

Though opponents including Goedde complained that the joint budget committee overstepped its bounds by setting policy in the budget bill, Cameron said this year’s budget included less “intent language” along with the budget numbers than most public school budgets.

“The idea that JFAC shouldn’t be able to write language is ludicrous,” Cameron said. “Otherwise, we might as well just be writing blank checks.”

The intent language in budget bills ties strings to the funding; it has the force of law, but lasts for only one year, matching the state’s budget year. It is a standard part of nearly every bill that sets the budget for a state agency; dozens pass the Idaho Legislature each year.

The defeated budget bill called for a 2.2 percent increase in state funding for Idaho’s public schools next year, which still would fall $110 million below the 2009 level. That was slightly above Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation for a 2 percent hike, but below state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s request for 3 percent.

The public school budget is the single largest piece of Idaho’s state budget, taking up roughly half the state’s general fund.

Cameron attributed the opposition in part to continued raw feelings over this year’s voter rejection of the “Students Come First” school reform laws, which were repealed in the November election. Goedde was the lead sponsor of the bills when they passed the Legislature in 2011.

“The raw emotions and feelings over the referendums – that’s what I really think is at play,” Cameron said. “Some people had worked really hard, and they were defeated.”

Ironically, the opponents of the budget in the Senate were mainly backers of the Students Come First laws, and teacher merit pay and technology boosts – the items in the budget singled out for the most criticism – were among the main thrusts of that reform plan. Cameron was among the laws’ leading opponents in the Senate.

“It seems almost a little bit surreal,” Cameron told the Senate.

Goedde said he thought the objections were more about the process than the substance of the bill, and suggested the two programs he wants committee hearings on might well still win approval, though possibly with some modifications. “I support differentiated pay,” he said, “and I support technology, and pilots have worked very well in Utah.”

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