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Otter seeks 2.9 percent hike in education funding

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter billed his State of the State speech on Jan. 6 and its proposed 2.9 percent, $37.4 million boost for public education as the start of a five-year journey to lift the quality of Idaho’s schools.

Immediately after the half-hour address, however, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna criticized the plan, arguing it amounts to a $21 million pay cut for teachers.

Luna wants at least that amount restored – on top of the $1.34 billion Otter wants to set aside for schools in fiscal year 2015.

“I’m sure some will argue that the proposals I’m putting forward today are not bold enough, not front-loaded enough or simply not enough,” the Republican governor said. “But peaks and valleys are not the best way to manage any enterprise – public or private. These proposed investments measured, manageable and within our means.”

In 2012, a task force appointed by Otter emerged with $350 million in recommendations to boost education, with a broad goal of 60 percent of adults between 25 and 34 having a college degree or professional certification by 2020. The figure is now about 35 percent, according to state statistics.

During the Jan. 6 speech, Otter said his education budget was a “significant start on a multi-year effort to restore funding to public schools that we withheld during the prolonged economic downturn.”

However, it was still about $60 million shy of spending levels five years ago when the recession hit and state revenue plunged.

Since last year, Luna, also a Republican, has been talking up his own proposed budget increase of $77 million for the year starting next July to help restore funding for school operations and give educators a pay raise.

Luna sought Jan. 6 to smooth over differences, insisting he and the governor were “on the same page, just not the same paragraph.” But his dissatisfaction was clear: Restoring school operations funding for things such as insurance and utilities that Otter’s budget favors shouldn’t come at the expense of salaries, Luna said.

“We can’t reduce teacher compensation in order to keep the lights on,” he told reporters. “I’m convinced we can do both.”

To do it, Luna suggested dipping into the $30 million that Otter has tentatively set aside for possible tax relief in the coming year.

Otter and Luna both face re-election bids this year, and their differences on how to prop up Idaho’s K-12 system highlight illustrate the challenges they face.

For Luna, it’s cultivating education advocates he may have alienated with his unpopular “Students Come First” overhaul that voters repealed in 2012. And for Otter, it’s crafting a spending plan he thinks he can sustain over the next half-decade, without making promises he can’t keep.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert and Senate budget chairman, said Otter’s proposal and Luna’s desire to do more – represent starting points for lawmakers to consider.

“We may have to find that middle ground,” Cameron said. “The good news is, both are proposing significant increases in education.”

At first glance, Democrats appeared to side with Luna.

In a year when Otter says public education is his top priority, House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, contends the governor doesn’t appear as committed to that goal as his rhetoric would suggest. For instance, Otter’s proposal would direct more than $70 million into rainy-day reserves.

“He’s put twice as much into reserves as he is putting into education,” Rusche said. “To my mind, where your treasury is, is also your heart.”

Education activists including Mike Lanza, who helped spearhead the repeal of Luna’s overhaul, sounded an even more sour note.

“My fear is that Gov. Otter and legislative leaders will keep on saying education is their top priority, while quietly continuing their longstanding policy of disinvesting in our kids’ schools and hoping the public eventually stops paying attention,” Lanza said after the speech.

 

Otter defends Idaho ed budget after Luna salvo

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s aides defended his proposed $1.34 billion budget for public schools, saying $21 million that’s going to teachers for bonuses and professional development this year was never meant to continue into the future.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has criticized Otter’s budget, saying it neglects teacher pay – and demanding the $21 million be restored.

On Jan. 7, Otter’s financial adviser David Hahn told the Joint Finance-Appropriations budget committee Otter moved the bonus money to district operations – something administrators pegged as among their top priorities.

Hahn says the $21 million Luna wants wasn’t cut, it was just shifted to other areas.

He told the budget panel that boosting teacher pay remains among Otter’s priorities, but “we’re just not prepared to bite off on that in 2015.”

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