Ferguson: Alternative Idaho budget would better fund education

The director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy outlined budget options for fiscal year 2015.

(Idaho Falls) Post RegisterJanuary 21, 2014 

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Formerly Idaho's state economist for 25 years, Mike Ferguson now directs the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.

DARIN OSWALD — Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

More can be done with Idaho’s fiscal year 2015 budget to bring funding for education, health and welfare and state employees back on an even playing field.

That’s according to Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy Director Michael Ferguson, who served as the chief economist for the state of Idaho for 25 years before starting the center in 2011. Ferguson outlined Monday an alternative budget to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s executive budget that would put more funding into the public school system and restore $35 million in cuts to the state’s Department of Health and Welfare budget.

“While it reflects a vastly different set of priorities than are embodied in the executive budget,” Ferguson said, “it relies on the executive budget for the basic parameters and framework used in developing a state budget.”

Ferguson said he was confident in the state’s revenue forecast for his alternative budget, which were the same figures recently endorsed by the Legislature’s Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee and used for Otter’s proposal.

Ferguson doesn’t plan to bring the proposal directly to germane committees or to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Rather, he hopes the proposal will act as a starting point for interested agencies and stakeholders to begin talking about what they’d like to see in the budget for 2015 and subsequent years.

“It is intended to show that Idaho does have the resources in fiscal year 2015 to provide meaningful funding increases to Idaho’s public schools, to restore significant cuts that were made to health and human services … and to provide a long overdue boost to employee compensation for thousands of hard working state and school district employees.” Ferguson said.

Jerry Evans and Marilyn Howard, former superintendents of public instruction, as well as Cindy Wilson and Mike Lanza, members of the Governor’s Task Force for Improving Education, came out Monday to support the alternative budget.

The alternative budget:

- Does not transfer $71 million to the state’s “rainy day” stabilization funds, as outlined in Otter’s budget. Under this scenario, more money could fund state services while Idaho would still have about $291 million in reserve funds, Ferguson said. Otter said in his State of the State address that money is needed in reserves to prepare for future economic downturns.

- Removes $30 million in unspecified tax relief as proposed in Otter’s budget.

- Gives a 4 percent increase in employee compensation. Otter’s budget marks the sixth consecutive year without proposed raise for state employees from the governor, Ferguson said. That increase would cost $21.5 million for state employees and $36.8 million for school employees.

- Restores the $34.5 million in one-time spending for public schools for teacher pay and operational costs from Fiscal Year 2014 and makes that money a permanent allocation.

- Expands Medicaid for a net savings of $42.4 million to the state’s general fund. That figure does not include an additional savings of $34.7 million to at the county level, Ferguson said.

Lanza, who co-founded Idaho Parents and Teachers Together in opposition to the state’s Students Come First laws, said Ferguson’s alternative budget takes more significant steps toward implementing the task force’s 20 recommendations.

He said the funding is critical as 94 of Idaho’s 115 school districts were forced to seek supplemental levies to cover operating costs last year.

“They are struggling just to keep the lights on and teachers in the classroom,” Lanza said. “I’ve heard superintendents say there are districts in Idaho that won’t exist without more support from the state.”

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