State Politics

Gov. Otter proposes boost for Idaho education

By Bill Roberts and Bill Dentzer

Idaho Statesman

Gov. Butch Otter asked Idaho legislators Monday for $116 million to keep Idaho on track to boost teacher salaries and help schools recover from cuts incurred during the recession.

Otter outlined his spending plan in his State of the State speech to Idaho legislators gathered for the first day of the 2016 Legislature.

Otter proposed no tax increases and a total general fund of $3.29 billion. The budget recommendations go to the Legislature for consideration and decision over the next few months.

Highlights include:

▪  Public schools: Otter proposed a 7.9 percent increase — a boost of $116.6 million — in education spending to a total of $1.59 billion. “We made promises during the Great Recession that we are duty-bound to fulfill,” Otter said. “We have priorities for Idaho’s future that require world-class K-12 schools and an advanced, responsive post-secondary education system. And now, we have the financial means.”

Funding for K-12 education took on greater urgency in recent weeks as state officials heard that Idaho’s high school graduation rate was the ninth-lowest in the nation at 77 percent.

▪  Career Ladder: $39.8 million for the second year of Idaho’s program to increase teacher pay with the idea of attracting more and better teachers to Idaho classrooms. Part of a five-year funding plan, which Otter would like to accelerate to three years.

▪  College and career counselors: $5 million to get more counselors into Idaho classrooms to help guide students toward the state’s goals of 60 percent of Idahoans age 25 to 34 achieving some kind of post-secondary education by 2020. Counselors in schools now have a case load of about 400 students and often have little time to focus on college and career.

▪  School operations: A nearly $30 million increase to cover districts’ day-to-day operations. The proposal restores operational funding to 2009 levels before lawmakers cut public education spending as the country fell into the Great Recession. Declining operational revenues were a primary driver in the growing number of property-tax supported supplemental levies in districts throughout the state. Restoring operational money was a major goal coming out of Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.

▪  Education fund for science, technology, engineering and math: $10 million would pay for advancing STEM programs in public schools and higher ed.

▪  College completion scholarship: $5 million in scholarships for adult students who have some college credits, but not enough for a degree, to finish school.

▪  Literacy: $10 million to improve literacy among Idaho students, including giving districts the option to start full-day kindergarten for students struggling to read.

▪  Higher education: Otter proposed a 9.6-percent increase for community colleges and 8.8 percent for four-year institutions. He also offered what he proposed as a “tuition lock.” Students entering their freshman year of a four-year institution would be guaranteed they would pay the same in tuition for all four years they attend, if they keep their grades up.

Otter proposes putting $10 million to the Higher Education Stabilization Fund should enrollment outpace projected appropriations. Proposal is aimed at providing predictability in costs. Tuition critics say the cost of going to college in Idaho is pricing many students out of the market. The proposal affects only tuition, not fees.

“It will ensure the rate that Idaho undergraduates pay when they first enroll in a post-secondary program will remain constant for at least four academic years. That brings greater financial predictability for Idaho students and their families while also providing an incentive for timely completion of a degree or professional certification program.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke said he could not predict how the governor’s education proposals would fare. “I suspect we’ll do everything we can for the K-12 system,” he said. “I think everyone, including myself, was somewhat taken aback by lower graduation rates. That’s unacceptable as far as I’m concerned.”

▪  Water: Otter praised the settlement between the Surface Water Users, who represent the senior water users on the Snake River, and groundwater users, whose rights are junior. The settlement makes a water-conservation plan for the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer possible. “I would encourage others who are at odds over apportioning scarce resources to use this agreement as a template for addressing their own conflicts,” Otter said.

Those other conflicts include a dispute between senior water right holders at Treasury Valley irrigation districts who are challenging a decision by Water Resources Director Gary Spackman that essentially upholds the management of the Boise River and its reservoirs as it has been done over the past 30 years.

The other is adjudication of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene river systems in North Idaho.

▪  Public defenders: $5 million to implement public defense reform.

▪  Legal costs: $2 million to go to the state’s Constitutional Defense Fund, which has been depleted over the years after paying legal fees and attorney costs in failed lawsuits Idaho has faced against the federal government.

▪  Mental health: $1.7 million for a third behavioral health community crisis center. The centers seek to help residents with mental illness who would otherwise face jail, emergency room treatment or other expensive interventions that often don’t provide effective or ongoing help. Two are currently operating in Idaho Falls and Coeur d'Alene.

▪  Fire: After a fire season that burned 742,000 acres and cost the state $61 million, Otter proposed beefing up the Idaho Department of Lands wild fire program by $920,000. Otter said he expects the 2016 season to be as bad or worse.

▪  Sage grouse: Otter has said he intends to sue the Interior Department for its changes to Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service plans to protect sage grouse. But he proposed $500,000 for fire prevention, suppression, and habitat monitoring and restoration efforts on non-federal lands.

▪  State pay: A 3 percent merit-based raise for state employees.

Last week, Otter outlined his plan to expand medical care to 78,000 uninsured Idahoans through a program financed by $32.4 million from state tobacco taxes. He barely mentioned the complicated plan in his speech Monday.

The proposal has a five-year sunset provision, offering “ample time to get it initiated and work out where the problems are,” Otter told reporters later. Among the long-term issues: proceeds for cigarette and tobacco taxes are declining along with tobacco use, to an estimated $28.7 million in four years.

Democrats derisively dubbed the proposal “Ottercare” and criticized its cost to state taxpayers and its lack of coverage beyond basic care. They said the plan essentially turns down federal health care funding Idahoans have already paid for through federal taxes and increases how much the state and its residents have to pay.

“In essence, the proposal provides a few doctor’s visits but does not support services that will likely cause severe financial hardship” for lower-income residents,” said House Assistant Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise. He later added: “Whenever we disagree with something, we just come up with an ‘Idaho solution’ that’s just really expensive.”

Statesman reporter Rocky Barker and The Associated Press contributed.

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