Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now
News >  Column

Eye on Boise: Education top priority before close of Idaho Legislature

House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill say the Idaho Legislature can still wrap up its session by March 27, as long as it addresses education funding.

Both also want to see movement on transportation funding, to address a $262 million annual road maintenance shortfall. But Bedke told the Idaho Press Club last week, “I think it is possible that we’ll do education and go home. It’s not my desire that we do that, but certainly it’s possible.”

Both said the teacher career ladder bill introduced in a House committee last week is key to wrapping up the major issue of the session: education funding. The measure would phase in pay increases for teachers who meet performance benchmarks; over five years, starting teacher pay would rise to $37,000.

“Yeah, it’d be nice if every teacher started at $40,000,” Bedke said. “But that’s not in the cards, frankly, on year one, with our budgetary constraints. We have a very conservative Legislature. … $40,000 would be nice, but logistically and budgetarily … it’s going to take some time.” He added, “You have my word as a former education budget wonk … I think without exception, it’s going to be good for teachers.”

As for transportation funding and how to address that, Hill said, “I still don’t think that we’re there.” Education funding remains top priority, he said. “In Idaho we’ve never been particularly generous with public education. … I don’t think we’ve been throwing money at it. We’ve been very careful and very frugal through all the years. … Wanting more money to go into public education, it’s a high priority.”

Hill also said Senate Tax Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, isn’t the only one who wants to postpone further tax cuts until education funding has been addressed.

“We put a good emphasis on tax relief over the last four or five years,” Hill said. “We have put literally hundreds of millions into the pockets of the citizens of Idaho with tax relief. … I think there’s a shift in the mood at the Legislature that we need to put a little more focus into the public education funding.”

About the numbers …

The new teacher “career ladder” bill proposed by Gov. Butch Otter, introduced last week in the House Education Committee, is being variously described as a $125 million plan and a $214 million plan.

It’s a $125.6 million plan.

Here’s why: The current teacher pay system in Idaho, if left unchanged, would cost the state $88.4 million over the next five years, from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2020. The proposed career ladder model would cost $214 million. The difference between the current system and the new model: $125,589,747. So that’s the additional amount the bill proposes Idaho should spend for teacher pay.

On compromise …

Bedke was asked about a possible compromise on civil rights protections for gays in Idaho. “I’ll tell you what it’s going to look like,” he told the Idaho Press Club. “It’s going to touch both bases that were described in that hearing. … It’s going to touch both those that are concerned about losing religious freedom, and at the same time it’s going to address the concerns about being mistreated in society, on either end of the spectrum. And I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to thread that needle. But it’s like trying to thread a needle as you’re jumping on a trampoline that’s in the back of a truck that’s going down a dirt road. It’s touchy. But I think that there’s people working on this in good faith at this point.”

Crisis center funding

The Legislature’s joint budget committee has unanimously backed funding for a second community mental health crisis center next year, this one to serve North Idaho. The vote came after a move by Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, to slice that funding out of the Department of Health and Welfare’s mental health services budget drew only two votes.

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, pushed for the funding; last year, Otter proposed three centers in Idaho Falls, Coeur d’Alene and Boise, but only one was funded. It opened in Idaho Falls several months ago. 

The centers are designed to provide an alternative to incarceration and hospitalization for people undergoing mental health crises; they serve patients for up to 24 hours. Communities are asked to come up with local funding to help support the centers, along with the state money.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “Our communities have spoken very loudly across the state for the need for this … and I think that it’s very clear that we’re ready for another one.”