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Courts trim costs, services in budget crunch

Idaho's court system isn't requesting any increased funding next year, and instead has agreed to a 1 percent cut to help balance the state budget, Patti Tobias, administrative director of the courts, told legislative budget writers this morning. The courts have three vacant magistrate judgeships and six requests for new judgeships that have been deferred for now. They have a hiring freeze, are down 16 percent in staffing as a result, and are relying on an emergency court-fee surcharge enacted by lawmakers last year to balance their budget. “For this budget year, the court stretched already stretched judicial resources across the state,” Tobias said. “The court has cut all possible costs. All court services to the public have now been affected.” Among the cutbacks: Startup of three new DUI courts has been halted.

ISP patrol force is at 1977 levels

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, asked ISP Chief Jerry Russell if it's true that ISP still has the same number of officers patrolling today as it did in 1977. “You're right as far as our staffing level,” Russell responded. He said of the current patrol force of 150 authorized positions, six are investigators, and there currently are 33 vacancies. Nine position are being held vacant due to budget cuts; seven officers are gone on military leave, “and I then have 11 that I hope to fill in this fiscal year. So that's 33 officers that are vacant.” The cost to fill one of those positions is about $55,000 a year, Russell said, “But when you look at the cost of startup, it's substantial.” Plus, he said, the vacancies mean bigger costs in overtime, “because somebody has to respond out there when there's that call for service, that fatal accident takes place or whatever. So it affects service and it also impacts the financial health.”

Lawmaker broaches funding cut for ISP, chief says it would be ‘devastating’

Gov. Butch Otter's budget recommendation calls for ISP to have a 20.7 percent increase in general funds from the state next year, but that equals out to a 1.9 percent reduction overall. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, just asked ISP Chief Jerry Russell, “If you had to take a 7 percent reduction,” in general funds - does the agency have have priorities set out “so you can lop off, say, a whole service out of your organization to meet that requirement?” Russell responded, “Yes. Now if I can follow up on that.” He said during the course of zero-based budgeting, the department has laid out all its costs and all its priorities. “With 7 percent, we're looking in the neighborhood of 30 officers additional that I would lose,” he said. “So when you talk about prioritizing, yes, we've done it. Yes, I know what the impact would be. … It would take me up to roughly 51 percent loss since 2009. Bottom line, it would be devastating as far as services.” That ranges from patrolling highways to doing criminal investigations. “Every part of the agency would be negatively impacted,” Russell said.

Former state drug czar is now Idaho’s anti-meth chief, thanks to federal grant

Idaho is one of seven states receiving a Rural Methamphetamine Law Enforcement grant from the federal government, which is funding a “meth coordinator” for the state for 18 months to “draw together Idaho resources to further attack meth manufactured in, or traveling through, the state,” ISP Director Col. Jerry Russell told JFAC today. The coordinator: Jim Tibbs, who was Idaho's first “drug czar” when then-Gov. Jim Risch appointed him to that position in 2006. Tibbs is a retired longtime Boise Police officer and former interim chief; a former chairman of the state Board of Correction; and a former Boise city councilman.

ISP makes budget pitch; now missing 6 detectives, 9 patrol officers due to cuts

Col. Jerry Russell, director of the Idaho State Police, is up for his budget presentation to JFAC this morning. Not only is he in uniform, there are lots of dark uniforms in the audience as staffers are accompanying him. Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who's chairing the joint budget committee today, remarked, “I'm not sure if I feel extremely protected this morning or extremely nervous.”

Russell said he is proposing three pieces of legislation this year: Extending a law on assault/battery of certain on-duty personnel to include POST decertification staffers and emergency services dispatchers; increasing the POST fee from $10 to $11.50; and making notification requirements consistent with regard to all towed or stored vehicles.

Russell said ISP's mission is public safety, provided through its investigations, patrol and police services programs. “In fiscal years 2009-2011, our greatest challenges have been providing these services while managing a 44.3 percent reduction in general funds from the initial fy 2009 appropriation,” he said “ISP's holdbacks and base reductions were achieved primarily by reducing operating expenditures and by holding open vacant positions, a strategy begun midway through FY 2009. Among those: Six vacant detective positions are being held open in investigations; and nine patrol positions, in addition to seven troopers who are gone on active military duty. “Our budget reduction strategies since FY 2009 have allowed us to retain critical FTPs (full-time position authorizations), and when funding is available, I hope to fill open positions by priority of need again,” Russell said.

Luna plan would cut 770 Idaho teaching jobs

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna's school reform plan, just unveiled today, would eliminate the jobs of about 770 teachers over the next five years, according to Department of Education estimates. “Because we are requiring online courses and because we are going to increase the student-teacher ratio over the next five years, there is anticipated to be fewer teachers,” said Luna's spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath. “Over five years it would equal about 770. … We believe over the next five years we can absorb most of those through attrition.”

Increases in class sizes would go into effect next fall, and bump up again the following year. The requirement for high school students to take two online courses per year would start with next year's 9th graders, the move up a year each year until it applied to all high school students.

Ethics committee meets, takes no action

Idaho's House Ethics Committee met behind closed doors for an hour and a half today, but reached no decisions and took no action. Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, the committee chairman, said much of the time was spent going over materials the committee had requested from the Idaho Attorney General's office in regard to a complaint filed by Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, against Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, charging that Hart has violated his oath of office. There was also brief discussion of two citizen complaints that have been submitted to the committee, one from North Idaho political activist and Hart supporter Larry Spencer against Anderson, and one from Hayden businessman and former Hart write-in election challenger Howard Griffiths against Hart.

Before the committee schedules another meeting, Loertscher said, “We've got to do some background stuff first in preparation for that.” Loertscher said, “I've read and reread Rule 76, so we're going to try to follow that to the letter if possible. So we've got some things we have to do before we made a decision about how we move forward.”

Lawmakers: Luna’s plan is ‘comprehensive,’ will take time to consider

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on state schools Supt. Tom Luna's far-reaching school reform proposal outlined today, which would eliminate tenure for new teachers, limit all collective bargaining agreements with teachers to one year and raise class sizes in grades 4-12 to fund a big new emphasis on technology and accountability.     The plan includes a laptop computer for every 9th grader and requirements for every high school student to take two online classes a year. Luna unveiled it to lawmakers today; he'll provide more detail next week when he gives his budget presentation.

“This is probably the most comprehensive school reform plan that i've seen in a while,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene. “It's going to take a while for this committee to digest the presentation and act on it.” House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, said he and his committee will have lots more questions for Luna as they consider the plan.

Luna cites election mandate for pushing ahead with school reform plan

State Supt. Tom Luna said it's his election mandate that's prompting him to push forward with his far-reaching education reform plan. “The urgency that we're moving this with is based on what the governor and I experienced this past year … going from community to community, a very, very rigorous campaign, on top of being a governor and state superintendent at the same time,” he said. “The people had a very clear choice, because those who defend the status quo ran very vigorous campaigns on how they thought education should operate now and in the future. The governor and I had a different plan. The people … rejected the status quo.”

Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, responded, “Education is a team sport- no one makes a unilateral decision.” When it comes to “how you increase the skill level of students, you have parents, you have teachers, you have administrators involved in the decision-making process. When a decision is reached, it is reached through a collaborative effort and everyone is satisfied with the approach. I'm not seeing any specific play by which … that was done. … If there was a lack of participation in a collaborative effort, then we've got a problem here.” Malepeai said the plan won't work unless all stakeholders are involved and can “buy into” it. “It is an Idaho problem,” he said, “and it cannot be sort of a unilateral approach to how we do that.”

Luna said he worked with stakeholders after his last pay-for-performance plan failed several years ago to develop a new one. “Well, then the wheels fell off the economy,” he said. “So we kind of put it on the shelf.” But that piece of the plan, he said, had input from stakeholders. “We are always willing to work with any individual, any group, any organization that puts students first,” Luna said. “That's the only litmus test, if you will.”

December revenue slip could reflect IRS delay

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho tax revenue missed forecasts in December for the first time in months, potentially complicating the effort to craft a budget for the coming year. State budget director Wayne Hammon said Wednesday it's possible the $10.7 million shortfall in December results from taxpayers delaying filing. The state was a combined $33 million ahead of projected collections through November, but Hammon says low receipts from individual income and sales taxes caused Idaho to miss the mark in the most recent reporting period. December revenue means the state is still about $22 million ahead, but Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's fiscal year 2012 budget that starts next July hinges on having a cushion. Some filers must delay filing taxes while the Internal Revenue Service reprograms computers to reflect a tax agreement reached by Congress last month.

Luna: ‘No correlation’ between student-teacher ratios, student achievement

Lawmakers on the House and Senate education committees are now asking questions of Supt. Tom Luna about his plan. Among the questions: Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, asked, “Student-teacher ratio - how do we compare now, with the rest of the nation?” Luna responded, “There are some states that have higher student-teacher ratios than us, like Utah for example; there are other states that have lower student-teacher ratios. There's no correlation between student achievement, when you compare (across states by) … student-teacher ratios.” He said, “Over five years we're going to increase student-teacher ratio by 1.6 students, but in return we're going to provide a tremendous amount of additional technology,” and restore other budget cuts. “That additional technology is going to give the teachers the tools they need to manage the classroom even with an additional student or two.”

Idaho's current average student-teacher ratio is 18.2, Luna said in response to a question from Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise. “It will increase to 19.8,” he said.

To fund Luna’s plan: Increase class sizes in grades 4-12 to save millions

State schools chief Tom Luna said the way he'd fund his new program is by shifts in the current school system, including enlarging average class sizes by 1.25 students per teacher in grades 4-12 to save $62.8 million. He'd bump that up another three-quarters of a student in 2013. “Just look at what we can accomplish by spending what we currently have differently,” he said. “We can give all students laptops. … We can provide teacher training… We can restore the salary grid, we can raise minimum teacher pay.” Other funding shifts include eliminating the 99 percent funding protection for school districts from year to year to save $5.4 million. “There's nothing in this plan that hurts Idaho students,” Luna declared. “It may be a little difficult for adults, but there's nothing in this plan that hurts Idaho students or will have a negative impact on student achievement.”

Luna’s 3rd pillar: Limit all collective bargaining agreements to one year, plus other changes

The “third pillar” of his school reform plan that state schools Supt. Tom Luna is describing, “transparent accountability,” would impose strict new limits on school district bargaining with local teachers' unions. Luna said he wants to limit all collective bargaining agreements so they can't extend beyond the end of the state fiscal year. Local teacher unions would “have to come to the table every year to negotiate a new master agreement,” he said. He'd also limit collective bargaining to salaries and benefits - not length of school day or any other issues.
In addition, his “third pillar” includes requiring parent input to be considered in all teacher evaluations; requiring school districts to post their budgets online; and all district salary negotiations would be required to occur in open public meetings. “Folks salaries and benefits make up 80 percent of our public school budget. … They have the right to observe the process.” All district master agreements with local teacher unions also would be required to be posted online. “The public should have easy access to those documents,” he said.

Luna also wants to give students flexibility to take online course without permission from schools or districts. And he wants changes in purchasing practices and the state funding formula, to require funding to follow the student and eliminate protection districts now have from big swings. He also said he'd authorize severance payments to teachers who are laid off because the student population suddenly drops.

Luna: ‘Age and longevity does not define quality teaching’

State schools chief Tom Luna said, “Tenure may have been a rite of passage in the past but it now … (has become) an obstacle to improving schools. He said he also is proposing to eliminate seniority as a criteria in teacher layoffs, meaning longtime teachers could be laid off before newer ones. “Age and longevity does not define quality teaching,” he said. “If we're putting students first, we cannot allow this to continue.” He said other states are looking at similar moves. He also called for tying teacher and administrator performance evaluations to student growth. “This is how we will recruit and retain great teachers in our public schools,” he said. “These are the tough choices we must make for the benefit of our students.”

Luna: End tenure for new teachers

State Supt. Tom Luna said his “second pillar” of reform also includes “focused, meaningful professional development and continuing education” for educators, along with more flexibility in hiring both for school districts and school principals, who would have veto power over hires at their school. He also said he's proposing “fair and effective labor practices,” which he defined as a two-year rolling contract for all new teachers to replace tenure. “We can no longer permit a forever contract in our schools,” he said, saying that no research shows tenure improves student achievement. Existing teachers, however, would retain it, he said.

Luna outlines pay-for-performance plan

Supt. Tom Luna has now started expanding on his “second pillar” of school reform, “great teachers and leaders.” He cited a study showing that having a highly effective teacher and principal has a big impact on student achievement. “Why would we ever leave this to chance?” he asked. “We must do everything that we possibly can to ensure that we have a highly effective teacher at the helm of every classroom and a highly effective leader at the helm of every school.” He said the current system limits the state's ability to reward great teachers and remove less-effective teachers.

“First and foremost, we will restore the instructional salary grid to full funding,” he said, which would reverse a budget cut made last year. “In addition the state will raise minimum teacher salary to $30,000. We have to get minimum teacher salary back up where it was.” In addition, he said, he proposes “a pay for performance plan to recognize and reward our excellent teachers and administrators. … I'm convinced this is the only way we will be able to attract and retain a highly qualified workforce in every school across Idaho.” He said, “We already know our teachers and principals are working hard every day to help our students. The goal is to reward them for the work they already do.”

Luna said he's proposing to move forward with a pay-for-performance plan he negotiated with stakeholders in 2009. It includes bonuses for working in hard-to-fill positions; taking on leadership responsibilities like mentoring new teachers or developing curriculum; or for working in schools that meet student growth targets, at both state and local levels. Luna said teachers could earn from $2,000 to $8,000 a year in bonuses under the plan.

Luna: Every 9th grader would be given laptop

Under Supt. Tom Luna's plan, every 9th grader in public schools in Idaho would be given a laptop computer, he told lawmakers. “We must recognize that hardcover textbooks are becoming a thing of the past,” he said.

Luna’s three pillars…

Luna said the “three pillars” of his school-reform proposal are: The 21st century classroom, which he said is “not limited by walls, bell schedules, school calendars or geography;” “great teachers and leaders;” and “transparent accountability,” to hold students accountable for the work they do and to hold teachers, leaders and school districts accountable for student achievement.

He then proceeded to pass out “clickers” to the committee members to demonstrate one aspect of the “21st century classroom,” and had them answer questions about Idaho history. In addition to investing in technology, the state needs to expand virtual learning, he said. By the fall of 2012, he said, all 9th graders would be required to take two online courses per year, a requirement that would then expand to all students.

Luna: Current education system is ‘financially unsustainable,’ must change

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has begun his school-reform presentation to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees, first thanking the committees for granting his and Gov. Butch Otter's request for the joint meeting. “Now is the time for us to make significant, comprehensive changes to Idaho's education system,” Luna declared. He touted gains in student achievement in recent years, but said they're not enough.

“The current system has become the No. 1 stumbling block to further improvement, because it is financially unsustainable,” Luna said. He said, “We must have a system that can educate more students at a higher level with limited resources. The current system cannot do that. … Idahoans have made it clear… that they don't want further cuts to education and they don't want taxes increased. … The answer is we must change the system.”

Luna to discuss ‘three pillars’

When state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna presents his education reform plan to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees tomorrow, his talk will be entitled, “The Three Pillars of Student-Centered Education,” according to the agenda. The meeting starts at 8:30 in the Capitol Auditorium; you can listen live via LegislatureLive.

Ethics session to touch on all three complaints

It turns out that the House Ethics Committee will, in fact, be considering Rep. Eric Anderson's ethics complaint against Rep. Phil Hart when it meets in executive session tomorrow, along with two citizen complaints the panel has received. The committee, at its last meeting, requested additional legal review from the Idaho Attorney General's office on the Anderson-Hart complaint; it'll go over that during Tuesday's meeting. “In my opinion, they're treating this as an extension of that preliminary investigation,” said Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane. However, Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said he anticipates only an executive session tomorrow morning, and that no decisions will be made; none can be made in a closed session.

That means the committee would have to schedule another meeting to take any action stemming from its closed-door discussion tomorrow.

Dems respond to gov’s State of State message

The House and Senate minority caucuses held a press conference this morning to give their response to the governor's State of the State message and budget. “In the face of enormous challenges and widespread economic hardship, the governor and many legislators have no plans to do anything significant,” declared Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello. “In fact, rather than being proactive, they've simply strengthened their resolve to dismantle the very public structures that help create prosperity.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “Here is where we may differ from the governor. We believe that maintaining our public structures is essential to protecting the Idaho way of life for our families and our businesses. It is not 'tyranny' to feed hungry children, care for the disabled or educate workers.” He added, “It is precisely because families are struggling that we need to makes sure our public systems have the resources to respond. We do this not simply by asking 'What can we afford?' but also asking, 'What must we do to protect our future?'”

Rusche acknowledged that the Democrats' numbers are small in both houses. “But we do have a job as the opposition, and that's to point out consequences,” he said. “What are the consequences of the deconstruction of the public structures that communities rely on, that businesses rely on here in Idaho? … Somebody has to talk about the consequences of actions and that is our role.”

Rusche said Democrats' priorities are jobs, providing a high-quality education to children, protecting the state's most vulnerable citizens and “ensuring that our state government is responsible, ethical, and accountable.” Malepeai said Democrats stand ready to work for solutions in collaboration with the majority. “I think we can come up with some of those solutions. I think a collaborative effort is what we're looking for,” he said.

‘We sharpen our swords on you’

After Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, told JFAC that it's an honor to be the first presenter to the joint budget committee each year, JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, responded with a smile, “We sharpen our swords on you.”

Water quality monitoring would be funded, but just on one-time basis

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, is fielding questions now about the governor's budget proposal from legislative budget writers. Among them: Whether water quality monitoring is funded in the Department of Environmental Quality in 2012. The answer: Yes, but it's funded on a one-time basis through a fund shift. Hammon said the department is “very concerned” about where that leaves the program in 2013, “and so are we.”

Another question focused on whether state agencies may hand out salary increases from savings in their budget, even though the budget provides no funding for raises. That answer, too, was yes. “The governor has not instituted a hiring freeze or a salary freeze,” Hammon said. “The governor has entrusted his cabinet members to make those decisions on a case-by-case basis. So while we're not providing money for a CEC, if the department has the money, or decided that within their appropriation can make room for that, they can move forward.”

Budget would mean no new Opportunity Scholarships for a 3rd year, just renewals

The governor's proposed budget for next year includes $1 million for Opportunity Scholarships, but that's just enough to continue funding renewals of the scholarships for students who already are receiving them; it's not enough to add any new ones. It would be the third year the state has taken that position; no new students have been able to apply for the scholarship for the past two years, due to lack of funds. About 450 students are getting the scholarships now, down from about 700 when the program started. Opportunity Scholarships provide needs-based scholarships of up to $3,000 per year, renewable for up to four years.

Gov still concerned about lagging state salaries, but can’t afford to address now

Gov. Butch Otter still is concerned about state workers' salaries lagging below market levels, Otter's budget chief, Wayne Hammon, told legislative budget writers; it's an issue Otter emphasized at the outset of his first term as governor, calling for a series of big pay boosts. Nevertheless, he's proposing no pay increases next year. “The state employees still lag in most areas,” Hammon said. “However we just can't afford it at this time.”

Hammon to JFAC: Dec. number ‘missed the mark - question is how much’

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, has begun his presentation to JFAC this morning on the governor's proposed budget. “The December revenue numbers are still not final,” Hammon told the budget writers. He said the Division of Financial Management “was hoping to get it finalized for the governor yesterday and was unable to do so.” He noted, “The December number is not positive, it missed the mark - the question is by how much.”

He also noted, “The governor's recommendation is a snapshot in time … and things will change. And they'll change again when we get the January revenue, and they'll change again by the time we get the budget set.”

Otter works some budget magic, avoids calling for tax increase

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter worked some budget magic to trim the state's looming shortfall for the coming year down to manageable size and avoid calling for any tax increases, in the budget he unveiled to state lawmakers Monday. They were skeptical, however, because Otter's plan relies on modest economic growth in the remainder of this year and into next year - and lawmakers aren't convinced it'll happen.

“I hope that he's right,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. “I would love it if we can make it work with what he's given us.” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Legislature's joint budget committee, said “We are not out of this year yet. … One robin does not a spring make.” She said, “I'm not even cautiously optimistic.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Ed reform plan to focus on teacher performance pay, more

Gov. Butch Otter and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna say Luna will unveil a big new education reform plan to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees on Wednesday, but neither would give details in their joint news conference this afternoon via the Idaho Education Network. “It's a comprehensive change in the way we spend the money we have,” Luna said. Otter reiterated his support for a pay-for-performance plan for teachers. “That is going to be our focus, and that is rewarding the best teachers that have the most success with those students as they exit those classrooms,” he said.

Luna said, “This is very comprehensive plan. It's far greater and it touches far more bases in education than just pay for performance. We can teach more kids at a higher level with limited resources and pay for performance is just part of that.”

He said, “Basically we have three choices: We, we can continue to cannibalize the system that we currly have, which means more furlough days, less instruction time for students who struggle, no money for technology … that's the first option. Second option is we can raise taxes so that we can fund the current system that quite frankly nobody has been satisfied with the results that we've been getting from the current system. Or you can change the system to a system that is student-centered and focuses on teaching more kids at a higher level.” He said, “Those details will be coming out Wednesday morning.”

Otter said, “I totally agree with Tom - we've got three options and I like the final option the best.”

Otter on cig tax: ‘Gonna have to convince me’

Gov. Butch Otter is holding a post-State of the State press conference via the Idaho Education Network, though few are participating on the network and many are in the room with him at the Idaho Department of Education. Among the questions so far: What Otter thinks of the proposed $1.25 per pack cigarette tax hike, which he didn't mention in his State of the State address. “It depends upon where that money's going to go,” Otter said of the proposal. “I'm a user pay guy… I have talked to the chairman. In fact I had a discussion since my State of the State speech with Chairman Lake, and I said I'm not convinced - you're going to have to convince me.”