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Idaho’s K-12 budget debate: an analysis

On Monday, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee spent two hours debating about $2.9 million.

There’s more to it, in fairness. Members of the Legislature’s budget committee disagreed about where to put some of these dollars.

But in the end, this was a debate about relatively small details — and two starkly similar budgets. The budget that passed would put $1,308,365,400 of general fund dollars into K-12 for 2013, a 2.2 percent increase, as opposed to a $1,305,468,600 budget proposal, a 2 percent increase.

There was no disagreement about increasing the budget for K-12 — or about tapping the $34 million that Gov. Butch Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna had earmarked for the governor’s education reform task force. Budget-writers agreed that the $34 million should stay in education for one-time projects. That means the money will still be in the budget base when the task force presents proposals to the 2014 Legislature.

If there is still any lingering thought that this $34 million should go elsewhere — into the schools’ rainy-day account, or to help offset a $141 million repeal of the personal property tax that businesses pay — that certainly seems to be a minority view.

Luna presser

“When the Legislature showed up, that was not necessarily the prevailing way in which the wind was blowing,” Luna said at a news conference following JFAC’s vote.

Afterward, Luna praised JFAC’s budget proposal — and with ample reason.

Luna didn’t get the 3 percent increase he sought when he appeared before the committee Jan. 24. But the budget approved Monday funds several items on his wish list: additional math and science teachers; an increase in minimum teacher salary from $30,500 to $31,000; state-funded college placement tests for high school juniors; professional development to prepare Idaho teachers for Common Core standards. On classroom technology, a Luna priority, the committee saw the superintendent’s $10.4 million and raised it by $3 million.

Ultimately, the K-12 budgets passed JFAC with bipartisan support. The 2.2 percent increase had the backing of the committee’s chairpersons, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Rep. Maxine Bell R-Jerome; the vice chairpersons, Sen. Shawn Keough R-Sandpoint, and Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. Ultimately, a majority of JFAC’s Republicans and all four committee Democrats signed on.

The resistance, such as it was, came from five Senate Republicans: Dean Mortimer of Idaho Falls; Cliff Bayer of Boise; Sheryl Nuxoll of Cottonwood; Steven Thayn of Emmett; and Steve Vick of Dalton Gardens.

The Senate Republicans found money in their $1,305,468,600 alternate budget for almost everything in Luna’s wish list. They even went beyond Luna on minimum teacher salary; a $31,750 minimum would have provided a raise to 5,300 teachers, Bayer argued.

The five opponents seemed to want to do two things. They wanted to provide more discretionary dollars to districts; and they wanted to try to adhere to Otter’s 2 percent target.

A fairly modest agenda, actually.

And that’s significant because, when legislative committees were announced last December, some observers thought JFAC might take a turn to the right — because of newcomers such as Nuxoll and Vick and former House members Bayer and Thayn.

On Monday, that didn’t happen. The differences were minor. And in the end, JFAC’s veteran leaders pulled over enough fellow Republicans and Democrats to prevail easily.

 (For a detailed look at what’s in the budget, read Clark Corbin’s story from Monday’s hearing.)

Kevin Richert is a reporter and blogger at Idaho Education News (idahoednews.org). Kevin is a former Statesman editorial page editor, with 27 year's experience in Idaho journalism.

Posted in The EDge