Published Online: March 3, 2010

Idaho Lawmakers Wince, but Pass Reduced Ed. Budget

Idaho lawmakers aim to give schools $128 million less in 2011 while allowing more freedom in how districts spend what they do get, an effort to make the worst budget year for public education as palatable as possible.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted 15-4 to trim the total budget to $1.58 billion, a 7.5 percent cut compared to the current year. The state's general fund portion of the budget falls 1.4 percent to $1.21 billion.

Lawmakers said this is the first year in Idaho history that total public education funding has been cut, the result of 9 percent unemployment and lagging tax revenue that's drained millions in state school reserves. In addition, schools aren't benefiting from an infusion of federal stimulus cash, like they did in 2009.

"There's plenty for all of us to dislike," said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert and co-chair of the budget panel.

All four of the panel's Democrats opposed the cuts, but their pleas were rejected by the GOP majority who said the poor economy and lagging tax revenue gave them no other choice.

Republicans ruled out a tax increase, even to help education.

"I truly don't see an alternative," said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, a 21-year school teacher and administrator. He added that when he talks to northern Idaho businesses: "They beg me,'Don't tax me anymore. I'm doing everything I can to stay alive.'"

The full House and Senate must still back the plan. Both are expected to do so.

Under the budget, teachers and classified staff will see Idaho's share of their salaries cut 4 percent.

Teachers also won't get automatic raises based on education or experience while and minimum teacher salaries were cut to $29,655, though districts could still pay them more from their other funding sources.

Meanwhile, administrators will be taking a 6.5 percent salary hit.

Still, instead of locking schools into spending on items such as school supplies or new computers, the budget includes provisions to allow districts to direct that money to their most critical needs. That reflects a compromise crafted late last month during meetings between Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, the Association of School Boards, Association of School Superintendents, the Idaho Education Association and lawmakers.

Under this plan, schools could still pay for bus rides for field trips, school supplies and technology, English-language instruction or gifted and talented programs, but they don't have to if they have higher priorities like boosting teacher pay or filling positions.

"One of the things we always preach about is 'Local control at local districts,' " said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. "That is what we're doing with this budget."

Despite the flexibility being afforded districts, Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, said schools are still getting just $308 million in this so-called "discretionary funding," down from $356 million in fiscal year 2010.

"We're shifting a reduced amount of money to the discretionary area for the school districts, but we are neglecting to tell the public what that really means," said Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello. "We're balancing the state budget on the backs of the kids, and that is wrong."

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who earlier this year floated a plan to boost taxes for higher-income Idaho residents, proposed a resolution that sought to give more than $30 million in additional funding to schools. Her plan would have added to state tax audit staff to bring in $17 million in added revenue; eliminated $10 million from the planned expansion of the grocery tax credit; and delayed a 2009 law to consolidate Idaho elections that's due to cost $4.1 million.

But majority Republicans voted Ringo's resolution down, arguing it didn't belong in the budget committee and was more appropriately handled elsewhere in the Legislature.

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