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Idaho school budget rejected by one vote in Senate

Thu., March 28, 2013

BOISE – In a stunning move Wednesday, the Idaho Senate rejected 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.

At issue was $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.

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 the two proposals.

“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 chairwoman, 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.”

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, which struck down the measure on an 18-17 vote. In addition to the merit bonus and technology grant items, he objected to restoring teacher pay after a two-year freeze on the state’s salary schedule. He said schools have gotten more for salaries through the recession than other state agencies.

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 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. No school budget has been defeated in either house since 1992.

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

The public school budget is the 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 voters’ 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.”

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 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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