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Strong state revenues, conservative budgeting could lead to big surplus

Idaho lawmakers have been budgeting so conservatively for state programs and services that the state is on track to end the current fiscal year on June 30 with a $108 million surplus, and if the state sees moderate revenue growth in the coming year of 4.5 percent, it could cover base budget requests plus a 7.5 percent increase and run up an end-of-the-year surplus of $150 million, according to figures presented to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this week.

That’s not including an array of big costs that legislative budget-writers also are watching for: Millions in fire-suppression costs; a funding shortfall at Idaho’s courts; raises for state employees whose pay has long fallen far below market rates; several pricey computer system upgrades; future costs to continue phasing in a teacher career ladder pay system; and potential expenses to fix Idaho’s public defense system, change its purchasing practices, invest in water projects and make changes in the state’s tax system.

JFAC members are holding their interim meeting this week, and have toured an array of locations in eastern Idaho, from the Triumph Mine to State Hospital South to the Dubois U.S. Sheep Experiment Station. They discussed funding issues with a small, rural school district; toured the Rock Creek Ranch, which Idaho Fish & Game wants to purchase and JFAC, after a long delay, supported last year, but it died by one vote in the House after passing the Senate 31-3; and they toured the state’s first tele-pharmacy at Idaho State University.  They’re also hearing presentations on funding and budget issues that they’ll need to address when the Legislature convenes in January.

Sen.  Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC co-chair, said the interim meetings let JFAC members “see where the impacts of our decisions are on the ground.”

You can see the General Fund Review here, which was presented to JFAC by legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith. “Having been through the Great Recession, certainly the numbers are looking a lot better than they have,” Keough said. “It’s good to be in a good place.” At the same time, she noted that some parts of the state “aren’t doing as well.”

Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, a member of the Legislature’s Tax Working Group, recently asked state budget analysts to look at how Idaho’s state and local government spending on programs and services compares to other states, and it yielded a surprising result: Idaho ranked dead last in per-capita spending, by a long shot.

Emergency surcharge fails to meet court’s funding gap

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Officials with the Idaho Supreme Court say the state's emergency solution to fill a $4 million funding gap for Idaho's court system has come up short. Retired Justice Linda Copple Trout says the emergency surcharges placed on some criminal and traffic cases in 2010 have failed to meet the projected annual $4 million for the state's drug, mental health and family courts. Furthermore, the short-term funding solution for sustaining court operations is now being used to pay the salaries of senior judges, trial court administrators and various personnel. Trout says this means the system now allows senior judges to assign the fees that pay their salaries, a potential conflict of interest. Idaho lawmakers approved increasing fees to infractions, misdemeanors and felonies after slashing the state's judicial branch budget during the economic downturn.

AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi has a full report here.

Ybarra proposes 7.5 % increase for schools budget

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's public schools chief is seeking a 7.5 percent increase in education spending for 2016, revealing her own budget proposal for the first time since taking office. Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra released her plan Wednesday. In it, Idaho's public school funding would bump up nearly $110.4 million more than what lawmakers allocated this year. Ybarra raised eyebrows earlier this year while giving an unusually short budget presentation in front of lawmakers. At the time, Ybarra countered that she had been asked to defend a budget penned by her predecessor Tom Luna, but moving forward would be different because she would be in control of writing her own budget plan. The proposal now goes before Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, legislative leadership and other stakeholders for review.

Idaho Education News reporters Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin have a look at the new budget proposal here; they report that Ybarra wants to bring operational funds per classroom back up to 2009 levels of $25,696; allocate another $98.1 million to cover the next phase of Idaho's new phased-in teacher career ladder salary plan; add a new $5 million literacy proficiency program; and increase technology funding by $2 million. Ybarra told the EdNews reporters that the restoration of operational funds to school districts after Idaho went through deep budget cuts was a priority. “During my listening tour, and as I travel the state, that was the No. 1 concern,” she said. “Again, remember that was 2009 and this is 2015 and going into 2016, so it’s a step in the right direction.”

New study finds four-day school weeks don’t save school districts money

A new study by a rural education group examined the 42 of Idaho’s 115 school districts that have gone to four-day school weeks as a money-saving move, and found that none have seen significant savings as a result. “Minimal savings could be achieved by reducing time for hourly employees, but districts were often reluctant to take this step,” wrote researchers Paul Hill and Georgia Heyward of ROCI, the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho. “Contrary to expectations, some districts saw their costs rise as a result of the need for additional enrichment activities and after-school snacks during the extended day.”

The researchers found some benefits from the new schedule, from opportunities for enrichment on the fifth day to longer days on the other four that better matched parents’ work schedules. But, they wrote, “None of the districts interviewed had rigorously assessed the effects of the four-day week on student achievement. Just one had set out criteria for reviewing its impact and returning to a five-day week if necessary. This means that the educational consequences of the four-day week, at present, are virtually unknown.” Read more in my full story here at spokesman.com.

You can read the full report here. ROCI is an initiative of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. The study also found that Idaho has far more school districts on four-day school weeks than the rest of the nation; just 1 percent of school districts nationwide have adopted a four-day school week.

Idaho closes fiscal year with big budget surplus; it goes to roads and savings

The final state tax revenue figures are in for the fiscal year, and with June’s revenues $9 million below the forecast, or 2.9 percent below, the final outcome for the year was 8.6 percent growth in general fund revenue – which is $92.3 million more than was forecast. When additional funds reverted from agencies that didn’t spend part of their allocations is added in, the state’s year-end surplus comes to just over $108 million.

Under legislation lawmakers approved this year, it’s all already spoken for – Half, or $54.2 million, will go the Budget Stabilization Fund, the state’s main rainy-day savings fund; and the other $54.2 million will go to the Strategic Initiative Program Fund, a transportation funding program. That split was established in HB 312, this year’s transportation funding bill, which included a “surplus eliminator” provision to split unanticipated revenue between savings and transportation. You can read the governor’s June General Fund Revenue Report here, and the Legislature’s General Fund Budget Monitor, which has additional budget impact information, online here.

Gov. Butch Otter hailed the year-end numbers, saying in a statement, “Idahoans can be proud that their state is heading in the right direction because the state’s executive and legislative leaders did not only what was tough, but also required laying the foundation for continued economic prosperity and ensuring our best years are still ahead of us.”

About those 2010 proposals to eliminate Idaho’s state parks department…

Gov. Butch Otter is taking some issue with the sentence in my Sunday parks story that says that in 2010, he “proposed shutting down the parks department and eliminating funding.” Otter said in an interview that his move was designed to send a message – he wanted business plans from all state agencies, and parks was one of four that didn’t immediately produce one. However, Otter’s formal executive budget proposal submitted to the Legislature in 2010 for fiscal year 2011 called specifically for cutting general funds for the state Department of Parks & Recreation to zero, and “devolving” the department, handing over its functions to the departments of Lands and Fish & Game.

Here’s how the proposal read in that year’s legislative budget book: “Devolve IDPR. The Governor recommends transferring the Department of Parks and Recreation’s property and operation management functions to the Department of Lands and transferring the license and registration function to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.”

Here’s a link to Otter’s executive budget document from that year; it reflects the “agency consolidation” and the reduction of the budget for the Department of Parks & Recreation to zero. That didn’t happen, for a variety of reasons, some of which were explored in my story. That year, Otter also proposed selling the state Department of Parks & Recreation headquarters and surrounding property, anticipating making $5 million; here’s a link to that proposal in his executive budget, listed directly under the “ending balance” line in the middle of the first page. That, too, didn’t happen.

Otter told me, “I guess the value that came out of this is people had to make assessments on the value they were getting. The people said, ‘This is nice, but it’s a necessary part of the local economy.’” He added, “Parks is emblematic – a good example of what we learn about ourselves, how much value do we put on what function of government. We learned that lesson out of necessity.”

That same year, Otter recommended a four-year phase-out of state funding for the Idaho Human Rights Commission, proposing nearly a 25 percent cut in the commission’s funding in FY 2011. The commission ended up moving to the state Department of Labor, where its budget was transferred, taking a 7 percent cut in the process. He also proposed four-year phase-outs of state funding for five other agencies: Idaho Public TV, the State Independent Living Council, the Developmental Disabilities Council, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, and the Hispanic Commission. None were approved, though all the agencies took smaller cuts; the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission was transferred from the Department of Health & Welfare to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Otter said, “It was to encourage them to say, ‘You know, the governor is serious about this. He wants to know what we’re going to do to continue to exist with less state funds.”

Idaho state parks thrive, draw crowds despite budget cuts

Idaho’s state parks are thriving, just five years after Gov. Butch Otter proposed shutting down the parks department and eliminating funding. State funding for parks in Idaho is still less than half what it was in 2006, and that’s reflected in smaller staffs, a backlog of maintenance projects and reduced services during off-peak months. But all the parks have remained open, and they’re welcoming record numbers of visitors this summer for everything from camping to weddings to paddle-board rentals to disc golf.

“Everybody predicted we’d have to close down parks,” Otter told the Spokesman-Review in a recent interview. But he said all he really wanted back in 2010 was to “do more with less – and by golly, the Idaho folks did it.”

Budget cuts have forced states around the nation, including Washington, to consider closing state parks over the past decade, though few actually ended up taking that step. Three states are looking at that now, however, including Wisconsin and Louisiana. A proposal in Alabama would close any park that doesn’t cover 100 percent of its operating costs, according to Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.

Ledford said he believes that’s a shortsighted measure, as it overlooks the value parks generate for the economies of their surrounding communities. “If citizens have a chance to vote to support funds for their parks, it’s overwhelmingly being popularly endorsed,” he said. And people also are “voting with their attendance.” State park visits are soaring nationwide, with the latest estimate of annual state park visitors topping 730 million. You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review, including photos and a map of North Idaho park attractions. Last week, Idaho’s state parks system celebrated its 50th anniversary; then-Gov. Bob Smylie established the parks system in 1965.

Idaho university officials report program, staff cuts

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — All four of Idaho's four-year public universities and colleges have eliminated degree programs, dissolved academic departments or reduced staff over the past year as part of a statewide effort to cut costs and prioritize college programs. Boise State University restructured several of its academic departments, including its College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, which is being replaced by a new School of Public Service. Meanwhile, the University of Idaho discontinued 19 degree options. This included bachelor degrees in American Studies, Art Education and Medical Technology. Lewis Clark State College consolidated a student testing center and Idaho State University eliminated eight degree programs. Idaho's State Board of Education first directed college officials to begin evaluating programs in 2013 after seeing a decrease in revenue from tuition and state funds. AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi has a full report here.

Idaho per-pupil spending, with inflation adjustment, still 18.6% below ‘06 level; also 50th in nation

Despite state lawmakers’ move this year to increase state funding for schools by 7.4 percent, school funding remains 6 percent below the 2006-07 level, the Idaho Statesman reports, when measured on a per-student basis, and 18.6 percent lower than 06-07 when inflation is taken into account. “It puts a huge perspective on why school districts in Idaho are struggling like they are,” West Ada School District Superintendent Linda Clark told Statesman reporter Bill Roberts.

Nancy Landon, administrator of budget and finance for the Boise School District, told the Statesman, “Nobody listens about inflation or consumer price index or anything like that. That is why you are seeing those huge increases in those supplemental levies. They had to go somewhere else to get the revenue.”

Roberts’ full report is online here. He reports that state general fund appropriations for K-12 public schools have been rising since 2012-13, but are still below pre-2009 levels when adjusted for inflation, and that’s before accounting for enrollment growth.

Meanwhile, the latest report from the U.S. Census on per-pupil spending by states, which came out June 2 and reflects 2013 data, showed Idaho ranked 50th – next-to-last among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia – for per-pupil spending on public elementary and secondary education, edged out only by 51st-place Utah. (It's on page 29 of the report, in the fifth column from the left.) The Census showed Idaho per-pupil spending for 2013 at $6,791 compared to Utah’s $6,555. Highest was New York at $19,818; the U.S. average was $10,700.

Strong state revenues mean boost for roads, but bigger boost for rainy-day fund

The way the numbers are currently shaping up, Idaho will have another $44.6 million or more to spend on road and bridge repairs next year, in addition to the $95 million provided by this year’s transportation funding bill, which includes a 7 cent per gallon gas tax hike that takes effect July 1. That’s because the bill also included a “surplus eliminator” that would provide additional funding for road work if state revenues come in higher than expected, and at this point, that’s exactly what they’re doing. The measure also would result in Idaho depositing a whopping $72.8 million into the Budget Stabilization Fund, the state’s main rainy-day account, next year.

The reason: The “surplus eliminator” provision splits uncommitted state general fund revenue surpluses 50-50 between the rainy-day fund and transportation; that means at least another $44.6 million also would go into savings. But that would be on top of the already-required deposit to the rainy-day fund, which based on rising revenues, now is estimated at $28.2 million. Lawmakers will consider all this when they reconvene next January; you can read my full column here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

Ninety-three of Idaho’s 115 school districts now have supplemental levies, up from 91 a year ago

Ninety-three of Idaho's 115 school districts are now collecting supplemental levies – voter-approved property tax increases designed to supplement thin school budgets – up from 91 districts a year ago, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. It’s a trend that’s been growing since Idaho’s state funding for schools was cut during the economic downturn. Richert reports that during Gov. Butch Otter’s eight years in office thus far, Idahoans have approved more than $1 billion in property taxes to backfill school district budgets; this year’s total dollar amount fell slightly, even as more districts passed levies. Richert’s full report is online here.

Change coming to committee chairmanships, some leadership posts in Legislature

When the Idaho Legislature convenes it organizational session on Dec. 4, six committee chairmanships and two leadership posts will be up for grabs, due to election outcomes, retirements and other moves. The chairmanships: Senate Education, Senate Resources, House Business, House Local Government, House Resources, and House Ways & Means. The leadership posts are Senate majority caucus chair and House assistant minority leader. You can read my full Sunday column here; it also includes a report on the recently filed arguments in Idaho’s same-sex marriage case, in which Gov. Butch Otter is seeking an en banc re-hearing from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals; and a state budget update.

Legislative Council hears generally positive budget numbers

The Legislative Council, the bipartisan leadership panel that handles matters between legislative sessions, met today, and among the reports it heard was an update on the state budget. It was generally positive news; although revenue estimates have been adjusted downward slightly since the end of the last legislative session, some costs have come in lower than anticipated, including a multimillion-dollar rescission from the Medicaid program due to lower than anticipated costs. As things stand now, the state general fund is on track toward an $85 million ending balance, or surplus, when fiscal year 2015 ends on July 1, 2015, up from the estimate at the end of the legislative session of $79.4 million.

Looking ahead to next year, based on agency budget requests, Idaho could end the 2016 fiscal year with a $50.7 million surplus, if revenues hit the projected 5.5 percent. “We’re glad to see the economy going the direction it is and at a little faster rate, as we recover from the recession,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who co-chairs the Legislative Council.

He was particularly pleased to hear estimates from legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee that while this year’s public school budget is $44 million below the fiscal year 2009 level in general funds, if current requests are funded, next year’s would finally exceed that ’09 level, by roughly $43 million. That’s based on current state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s proposed budget for next year, which could be amended by his newly elected successor, Sherri Ybarra. Luna originally proposed a 6.9 percent increase for schools, but that’s been amended down to 6.4 percent because an anticipated PERSI rate increase was cancelled by the state retirement fund’s board, so those anticipated costs have been removed from all state agency budget estimates.

“If we were to follow the recommendations so far, we will have restored all of those cuts plus shown some increases,” Hill said.

The council also heard a report on the potential costs of the pending tiered licensure rule at the state Board of Education. The controversial proposal may well change; it’s been the target of heated criticism at hearings around the state.

But as proposed, the rule has generally been described as costing roughly $220 million a year once it’s phased in, for a new teacher compensation program that would raise teacher pay while tying it to three new performance-based tiers of teacher licensing. Headlee plugged in the costs of benefits and growth, and came up with a new total figure: $304 million a year in ongoing costs at the end of the five-year phase-in. He also calculated the costs of sticking with Idaho’s current teacher compensation system for the next five years, which requires certain increases for years of experience and education; staying with the current system would have an ongoing additional cost of $127 million to the state general fund by that same five-year point.

That means the difference, or “new money,” required to bring on the new tiered system would be $177 million. Hill that analysis may make the concept “more palatable” to legislators.

Otter says he’s including first year of teacher career ladder plan in his state budget proposal

Idaho Education News is reporting that the first-year costs of the teacher career ladder plan endorsed Monday by a state Board of Education subcommittee are being written into Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed state budget for next year. “It’s within our parameters,” Otter said in a Wednesday interview with Idaho Education News. “I have every confidence that we will get the first year.”

The career ladder plan carries a five-year price tag of $175 million. First-year costs are projected at $23.7 million; they’d go up from there. It’s the costliest of the 20 recommendations from Otter’s education reform task force, with a price tag of $38 million in year two; $45.6 million in year three; $36.8 million in year four; and $30.5 million in year five.

Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News has a full report here.

Task force: New tiered teacher certification system won’t work without more money for pay

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A state task force says reforming Idaho's teaching certification must be tied to increasing salaries in order to attract and retain quality teachers in public schools. The 15-member committee spent most of Monday discussing details of implementing a new teacher pay system commonly known as the career ladder. However, some members worry that state lawmakers will approve tougher certification requirements without providing funding for higher salaries. The committee is currently considering a seven-year transition to jump beginning teacher salaries from $31,750 to $40,000. State GOP Sen. Dean Mortimer of Idaho Falls says he would like the group to consider proposing a five year transition. State lawmakers will review the committee's recommendation when they convene in January for the 2015 Legislature.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi.

A numbers debate: Is Idaho 50th or 51st in school spending?

Idaho Education News reports today on a numbers debate: Does Idaho rank 50th or 51st for its investment in education? The answer: Both. There are several measures, and Idaho ranks at or near the bottom on all of them. The rankings that have 51 possibilities include all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. EdNews’ Kevin Richert reports that people in Utah are crowing about a recent U.S. Census report that showed Idaho for the first time surpassing Utah and ranking 51st - lowest - for the funding it collects, from all sources, for K-12 education, measured per-student. “Idaho now holds the once-coveted position that we held for so long that none of us were real proud of,” said Utah state Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Meanwhile, Idaho’s actual per-student spending for 2011-12, the most recent year reported, ranked 50th, just ahead of Utah’s ranking. Richert’s full report is online here.

Luna calls for 6.9% boost in state school funding next year

Idaho schools chief Tom Luna has submitted a proposed budget for public schools for next year that reflects a 6.9 percent increase in state funding. The budget proposal calls for $23 million to start on a new teacher career ladder, which Luna says will then need an additional $40 million a year in each of the next four years; an increase in operational funding to school districts for basic expenses next year of $10 million; $9 million for classroom technology; $21.6 million for professional development for teachers; and restoring $10 million cut from funding for maintenance and safe and drug-free schools.

All state agencies are required by law to submit budget proposals for the next fiscal year to the governor’s office by Sept. 1. Gov. Butch Otter will propose a budget to lawmakers when they convene in January, and they’ll decide on the details; by then, Luna will be out of office and the new superintendent will be either Democrat Jana Jones or Republican Sherri Ybarra.

“We’re meeting our priorities and fulfilling our promises with this budget,” Luna said in a statement. “This budget proposal follows priorities set forth by Gov. Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.” Otter had called for phasing in the task force’s recommendations, which total roughly $350 million in increased annual school funding all told, over five to six years; lawmakers approved a 5.1 percent increase in school funding this year as part of the first year of the effort.

Luna’s proposal includes statutory requirements to accommodate expected increases in student population and costs; without those, it reflects a 5.8 percent increase in state general funds.  Luna’s proposed $10 million increase in operational funds would bring operational funds per classroom unit next year up to $22,885, up from $22,401 this year. But that’s still well below the 2008-09 level of $25,696 per classroom unit. Otter's task force called for restoring those funds at $16.5 million a year; last year, lawmakers exceeded that with a $35 million restoration. You can see Luna’s figures here.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi.

Idaho’s year-end budget surplus: $44.4M

Year-end state tax revenue figures announced yesterday showed that Idaho ended up with $7.2 million more than expected at the end of the fiscal year June 30, but the state actually has a significantly larger budget surplus than that. Here’s why: This year’s state budget didn’t call for spending all the tax revenue the state expected to collect. Instead, $36 million was transferred to various budget stabilization funds, and another $44.4 million was left unspent, creating a year-end balance or surplus.

The monthly Budget and Revenue Monitor from the Legislature’s budget staff lays out the figures; you can see it here. It shows the ending balance, or surplus, at the end of fiscal year 2014 at $44.4 million, $17.6 million higher than was anticipated at the close of this year’s legislative session.

Factors pushing the number higher, aside from the increased revenue collections, are year-end reversions of unspent money from various state agencies, including $6.4 million from the Catastrophic Health Care Program due to lower than anticipated costs; $5.9 million from other agencies; and $1.6 million in other year-end adjustments, all adding to the surplus. (If you’re doing the math, the Legislature’s budget figures already counted part of the $7.2 million based on revenue reports that came in before the Legislature adjourned; so by its calculation, the additional year-end boost from revenues was $3.6 million beyond expectations rather than $7.2 million.)

When lawmakers return to town in January, they’ll need to act on a series of deficiency warrants largely consisting of $17.5 million for firefighting costs; that would still leave more than $26 million from the surplus. An additional reversion from Medicaid also is expected to boost the total in August or September.

Idaho school spending cuts through recession were deepest in the nation

Idaho led the nation for cuts in per-student public school spending through the recession, according to an analysis by ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight blog, spending 12.3 percent less per student in the 2011-12 school year than in 2008-09. That’s using inflation-adjusted figures. New Mexico came in second with an 11.9 percent cut, and just four other states, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and California, had cuts of more than 10 percent. Thirteen states actually increased per-student spending during that time period, led by North Dakota with a 7.7 percent increase and New Hampshire with 6 percent. Washington showed a decrease of 5.7 percent; Utah had a cut of 8.9 percent; Oregon was down 9.7 percent; and Montana saw a 2.7 percent cut.

Ben Casselman, chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight, a data journalism site, analyzed the figures and found that overall, the states that already spent less per student, like Idaho and Utah, made the biggest cuts. You can see his full post here.

Six years after recession hit, Idaho’s state budget still below ‘09 level

The Legislature’s joint budget committee is starting a three-day interim meeting in Boise today that will include tours and presentations along with discussion of state revenues and where the state budget stands. Comparing the budget that the Legislature set for fiscal year 2009 to the budget for the year that begins July 1, fiscal year 2015, the impact of the big recession is clear: The total state budget is still $23.2 million less than it was; that's 0.8 percent less. That’s despite big increases in student numbers, Medicaid caseloads, population and more.

Education funding overall has dropped 5.3 percent since 2009, including a 3.1 percent drop in funding for public schools; funding for natural resources programs is down 35.2 percent; and funding for economic development is 16.1 percent lower. Health and Human Services spending is up 10 percent from the 2009 level, public safety is up 13.1 percent, and general government spending is up 3.1 percent, including costs for the Idaho Education Network through the state Department of Administration.

Idaho’s higher ed cuts since recession rank sixth-deepest in nation

Idaho has cut its state funding for public colleges and universities by 36.8 percent since 2008, according to a new report from Idaho KidsCount and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than all but five other states. The report showed that, adjusted for inflation and in constant 2013 dollars, Idaho cut funding by 36.8 percent, a decrease of $3,857 per higher ed student. Meanwhile, average tuition at Idaho’s public four-year colleges increased 28.5 percent.

“Areas with highly educated residents tend to attract employers who pay competitive wages. That’s what Idaho needs,” said Lauren Necochea, director of Idaho KidsCount. “We should be looking for ways to make college more affordable for students and their families.”

Michael Mitchell, policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said, “More jobs in the future will require college-educated workers. For the sake of its economy and future workforce, Idaho should start reinvesting in its colleges and universities now.”

The group’s report found that the highest percentage drop in higher ed funding came in Arizona, followed by Louisiana, South Carolina, Oregon, Alabama and Idaho. The biggest drop measured by inflation-adjusted dollars per student came in Louisiana, followed by Hawaii, New Mexico, Alabama and Idaho. You can see the full report here.

Guv’s budget chief: ‘Not much money to do anything new’

Jani Revier, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, told the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho today, “We expect a conservative budget that doesn’t over-commit.” She said, “The good news is that general fund revenues are recovering from the recession. … The general fund is forecasted to return to the fiscal year 2008 levels by next fiscal year.” Idaho transferred an additional $85 million in unexpected revenue to its budget stabilization fund on July 1, she noted, but said, “Our state economist has warned that much of this revenue is one-time.” The budget stabilization fund, the state’s main rainy-day savings account, now has $135 million in it – nearly reaching its statutory cap.

“As the state’s economy began to recover, the governor set forth the following principles” for the state budget, Revier said. They are: Not to grow at the same rate as the economy; maintaining structural balance; and replenishing rainy-day accounts.  “We are not going to simply restore lost general fund from the agencies that we cut,” she said. “The governor wants to focus on making strategic reinvestments,” focusing on core areas of government and not losing efficiencies gained during the years of downturn.

Revier said Otter has made clear that certain items will be included in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2015: Recommendations of his education task force; health and human safety needs; addressing a maintenance backlog; and covering increased employer healthcare costs. The state is expecting a substantial increase in those costs, to the tune of $1,400 per employee, she said, and covering that will be “a significant investment in our state’s workforce.” She said once basic needs are covered for state government, “There just isn’t much money to do anything new.”

PERSI change drops Luna’s proposed school budget hike from 5.9% to 5.4%

State Schools Supt. Tom Luna’s proposed 5.9 percent budget increase for public schools next year has dropped to 5.4 percent, Clark Corbin of Idaho EdNews reports, but not because Luna’s changed what he’s asking for. Instead, a recent decision by the PERSI board to hold off on a scheduled rate increase, due to strong earnings in the pension fund, changed the overall numbers. The Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho covers state and local government employees, school district employees and more; PERSI is among benefit costs built into calculations for all state agency budgets.

Tim Hill, deputy superintendent for public school finance, told Corbin the PERSI change made a $7.2 million difference in the public school budget calculations. Now, Luna’s proposed increase for next year comes in at $69.9 million, down from the previous $77 million; you can read Corbin’s full report here.

Luna wants 5.9% increase for schools next year, to start phasing in task force reforms

State school Superintendent Tom Luna told the Meridian Chamber of Commerce today that he endorses “every one” of the 20 recommendations of an education stakeholders task force appointed by Gov. Butch Otter, and has built his budget request for public schools for next year to match them – including a request for a 5.9 percent, $77 million increase in state general funds. “Taken together they will fundamentally transform our education system in Idaho for the better,” Luna said. “They’re all important.”

Luna said he agrees with Otter that the reforms will cost between $350 million and $400 million a year in new money, and that they must be phased in over several years. “While this budget only addresses one fiscal year, I believe it sets us up for a fiscally sound structure for funding the task force recommendations over multiple years,” he said.

Luna’s budget proposal calls for spending $42 million next year for the first phase of a new teacher career ladder, a proposal that will cost $250 million over six years and eventually boost Idaho’s starting teacher pay to $40,000, a third higher than it is now. The plan also would establish a new three-tiered professional licensing system for teachers, with the second tier eventually starting at $50,000 a year, and the top tier at $60,000. The proposal for next year, he said, is “a major step in transforming the way we pay Idaho’s teachers so as a state we can attract great teachers and retain the ones that we already have.”

Luna’s proposal also includes $13.4 million for school technology next year; $5.64 million for new opportunities for high school juniors and seniors to take advanced courses; and $16.5 million for the first installment of restoring $82.5 million in operating funds that have been cut from Idaho’s schools during the state’s economic downturn. The task force suggested phasing in the restoration over five years.

Luna’s budget request totals $1.3779 billion in state general funds, up from this year’s $1.3008 billion figure.  He told the crowd of 80-plus at the Meridian Chamber luncheon that he wants input on the proposal, from everyone – parents, teachers, business people, and more, and is open to making changes. He noted that the Legislature won’t convene for three months, and then it’ll debate for another three. He called his proposal “the beginning of a conversation.”

After his talk, Luna said he’s had “a very positive reception” from legislators, education stakeholders and others to his plan, which anticipates a substantial funding increase for schools not only next year, but likely each year for the next six. Luna said that's what it would take to accomplish the task force's plan. “I think that people are really focused on finding a way to make these recommendations a reality.”

Luna asks for more time to craft school budget request to match task force recommendations

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna has asked for more time to prepare the 2014-15 public schools budget request so he can build it around an education reform task force’s recommendations, Idaho Education News reports. While state agencies typically submit budget requests around Sept. 1, Luna submitted only a placeholder “statutory budget” on Sept. 3, IdahoEdNews reporter Clark Corbin writes, and asked for an extra 30 days to submit a formal budget request “so I will be able to submit a budget that is relevant to the Task Force’s recommendations.” The request was granted by Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, and Idaho legislative services director Jeff Youtz. You can read Corbin’s full report here.

Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, told Idaho EdNews, “Superintendent Luna will be working closely with all stakeholders as well as the staff at the State Department of Education on developing a budget request that addresses the recommendations of the Task Force.” The stakeholders task force, appointed by Otter and coordinated by the State Board of Education, gave near-unanimous approval to a sweeping set of proposals last month, from boosting Idaho teachers’ pay to advancing students to the next grade only when they’ve mastered the material.

Superintendents to Luna: ‘We are starving to death in our districts’

Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna met with school district superintendents from around the state this morning, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News; he was asked about everything from the budget to Common Core to the state’s controversial new high school WiFi contract. Richert reports that American Falls Superintendent Tom Bollinger put Luna on the spot about the state’s decision to park $85 million of surplus money in its rainy-day fund, the Budget Stabilization Fund. “We are starving to death in our districts,” Bollinger said. Luna responded that there’s some “wisdom” in replenishing the savings. But he did say public schools are headed into a pivotal budget year in 2014, because of better-than-expected state revenues, and because an education reform task force is expected to make its recommendation to Gov. Butch Otter later this summer.

Richert reports that the only question about the WiFi contract was from Cottonwood Superintendent Rene Forsmann, who wondered when she could expect to see her district hooked up. You can read Richert’s full report here.

Idaho closes fiscal year with surplus, puts $85M more into rainy-day fund

Idaho’s state tax revenue came in 6.5 percent ahead of forecast in June, closing out the fiscal year with a $92.5 million surplus over the $2.658 billion the state had expected to take in for the year. That’s 3.5 percent; it’s a 6.3 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

The higher-than-predicted tax revenues also triggered legislation sought by Gov. Butch Otter this year to transfer $85.4 million of the year-end balance into the state’s main savings account, the Budget Stabilization Fund. That boosts the total in the account to more than $135 million, a move Otter lauded today.

“Don’t get the idea that we’re flush just because we ended the budget year with a few extra bucks,” Otter declared. “We have plenty of needs and plenty of priorities. But the best way to ensure economic stability and continued growth is to remain prudent, cautious and responsible in how we allocate every one of those taxpayer dollars.”

The state’s surplus comes as agencies continue to struggle with years of budget cuts that haven’t been restored, and school districts across the state have increasingly sought local property tax hikes to make up shortfalls in state funding.

Otter’s office said in a statement that the year-end results “show the wisdom of his shared commitment with the Legislature to ensuring government does not grow as fast as Idaho’s economy and to continue refilling the state’s various rainy day funds,” adding, “That’s especially true in light of continuing uncertainty about the federal budget, federal fiscal policies and their impact on economic recovery.” You can read the General Fund Revenue Report here.  Click below for a report from AP reporter John MIller, who notes that this makes the third straight year state tax revenues have exceeded forecasts, and that every category of collections, from sales taxes on retail goods to personal and corporate income taxes, came in at levels higher than originally estimated last year.

Idaho scrimps on state employee pay

As University of Idaho President Duane Nellis leaves Idaho this week to become president of Texas Tech, his parting advice to the state was to invest in its workers by funding raises for state employees. That’s something Idaho Gov. Butch Otter declared a priority early in his first term, noting the gap between state worker pay and market rates. But since the downturn hit, Idaho hasn't funded state employee raises in four of the last five years. Now the state is relying on agencies to find budget savings in order to give some workers pay boosts.

Agencies have been directed to use any savings they can identify in their budgets for either one-time bonuses, if the savings are one-time, or for ongoing raises, if they’re efficiencies that will continue. “They’re going through that process,” Otter said. “In fact, I’ve OK’d quite a few of those agency directors’ programs.” Under plans approved by the governor’s Division of Financial Management, $5 million in raises and $4 million in one-time bonuses are going out either this year or in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1; a few agencies still are working on their plans. But workers in agencies that don’t have savings are out of luck.

Just 23 percent of state workers have gotten raises averaging $1,500 under the plans, and 30 percent have gotten bonuses averaging $900. “Every agency is different,” said Jani Revier, Otter’s budget director. “It was done on the amount each agency could afford.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

By the way, Nellis earned $335,000 as president of the University of Idaho. At Texas Tech, his base salary will be $427,000, plus a $12,000-a-year car allowance, a $60,000-a-year housing allowance and a deferred compensation package.

Idaho tax revenue for March beats forecast by 4.4 percent

State tax figures are in for the month of March, and they beat the forecast by 4.4 percent or $5.8 million. That’s the third consecutive month that tax revenues came in ahead of expectations, and it pushes the fiscal year-to-date surplus to $22.6 million, which is 1.2 percent ahead of the projection. Still ahead is April, the biggest revenue month of the year. You can read the DFM’s monthly Idaho General Fund Revenue Report here.

State budget outlook not as sunny when looking another year out…

With current state tax revenues, Idaho's state budget is on track for a substantial ending balance July 1 of as much as $37 million, according to figures presented to lawmakers today by legislative budget chief Cathy Holland-Smith. That doesn't count $18.3 million in supplemental budget requests that lawmakers will consider in January, but Holland-Smith said those requests are likely to fall substantially, based on slower than expected Medicaid caseload growth and differences in prison inmate forecasting. If all $18.3 million were needed for the supplemental requests, the state would end this budget year July 1 with an $18.7 million ending balance, Holland-Smith said.

She then presented an estimate for the fiscal year 2014 budget, the year that starts July 1, including various assumptions about budget requests. If all requests were funded, state workers were given 1 percent raises, and state revenue were to grow by 4 percent, the hypothetical bottom line would be negative, to the tune of $169.5 million. That's in part because one-time money from reserve funds has been built into the state budget to help it balance each year in recent years. Idaho still would have some reserve funds available; as of June 30, 2013, the state's two main reserve funds, the Budget Stabilization Fund and the Public Education Stabilization Fund, would hold a projected total of $98.6 million.

Holland-Smith cautioned, however, that the assumptions include Idaho continuing its Catastrophic Health Care Fund program, which could go away if the state opted to expand its Medicaid program largely at federal expense. Other assumptions also could change.