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Eye On Boise

Otter: Schools top priority, even before tax cuts

Idaho Gov. C.L.
Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter delivers his State of the State address inside the House chambers at the state Capitol building on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Boise, Idaho. (AP / Otto Kitsinger)

Education is the top priority for Idaho for the coming year, Gov. Butch Otter declared Monday, coming even ahead of tax cuts for businesses and top earners. You can read my full story here at Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller; the full detail of Otter’s budget proposal is online here at the state Division of Financial Management’s website.

Otter seeks 2.9 percent hike in education funding
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter billed his State of the State speech on Monday and its proposed 2.9 percent, $37.4 million boost for public education as the start of a five-year journey to lift the quality of Idaho's schools.

Immediately after the half-hour address, however, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna criticized the plan, arguing it amounts to a pay cut for teachers.

Luna wants another $21 million — on top of the $1.34 billion Otter wants to set aside for schools in fiscal year 2015.

"I'm sure some will argue that the proposals I'm putting forward today are not bold enough, not front-loaded enough or simply not enough," the Republican governor said. "But peaks and valleys are not the best way to manage any enterprise — public or private. These proposed investments measured, manageable and within our means."

In 2012, a task force appointed by Otter emerged with $350 million in recommendations to boost education, with a broad goal of 60 percent of adults between 25 and 34 having a college degree or professional certification by 2020. The figure is now about 35 percent, according to state statistics.

During Monday's speech, Otter said his education budget was a "significant start on a multi-year effort to restore funding to public schools that we withheld during the prolonged economic downturn."

However, it was still about $60 million shy of spending levels five years ago when the recession hit and state revenue plunged.

Since last year, Luna, also a Republican, has been talking up his own proposed budget increase of $77 million for the year starting next July to help restore funding for school operations and give educators a pay raise.

Luna sought Monday to smooth over differences, insisting he and the governor were "on the same page, just not the same paragraph." But his dissatisfaction was clear: Restoring school operations funding for things such as insurance and utilities that Otter's budget favors shouldn't come at the expense of salaries, Luna said.

"We can't reduce teacher compensation in order to keep the lights on," he told reporters. "I'm convinced we can do both."

To do it, Luna suggested dipping into the $30 million that Otter has tentatively set aside for possible tax relief in the coming year.

Otter and Luna both face re-election bids this year, and their differences on how to prop up Idaho's K-12 system highlight illustrate the challenges they face.

For Luna, it's cultivating education advocates he may have alienated with his unpopular "Students Come First" overhaul that voters repealed in 2012. And for Otter, it's crafting a spending plan he thinks he can sustain over the next half-decade, without making promises he can't keep.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert and Senate budget chairman, said Otter's proposal and Luna's desire to do more — represent starting points for lawmakers to consider.

"We may have to find that middle ground," Cameron said. "The good news is, both are proposing significant increases in education."

At first glance, Democrats appeared to side with Luna.

In a year when Otter says public education is his top priority, House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, contends the governor doesn't appear as committed to that goal as his rhetoric would suggest. For instance, Otter's proposal would direct more than $70 million into rainy-day reserves.

"He's put twice as much into reserves as he is putting into education," Rusche said. "To my mind, where your treasury is, is also your heart."

Education activists including Mike Lanza, who helped spearhead the repeal of Luna's overhaul, sounded an even more sour note.

"My fear is that Gov. Otter and legislative leaders will keep on saying education is their top priority, while quietly continuing their longstanding policy of disinvesting in our kids' schools and hoping the public eventually stops paying attention," Lanza said after the speech.


Copyright 2014 The Associated Press

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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