Otter: Religious schools amendment is unnecessary

Gov. Butch Otter came out against a proposed constitutional amendment easing Idaho’s ban on funding religious schools — calling the amendment unnecessary.

“Generally, I am very, very cautious about fussing with the Constitution,” Otter told reporters Thursday morning, during a breakfast roundtable hosted by the Idaho Press Club.

Loertscher New
Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona

Otter isn’t alone in his caution. The amendment is on hold in the House State Affairs Committee — and Chairman Tom Loertscher has not set a hearing date.

House Joint Resolution 1 would ease the wording in Idaho’s Constitution, which prohibits the use of public dollars to support “any sectarian or religious purpose.” Critics say the amendment would open the door to a voucher system that would support religious schools. Supporters say they want to provide legal protection for students who use state-funded scholarships to attend church-owned colleges, such as Northwest Nazarene University or Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Otter is unconvinced, since no one has ever challenged using state scholarships at church-owned colleges

“They’re probably picking at an old scar,” Otter said of amendment supporters. “And they’re going to make it a sore if they’re not careful.”

HJR 1 had been on State Affairs’ agenda for Thursday, but Loertscher pulled it Wednesday. Loertscher hasn’t ruled out a hearing — but he hasn’t rescheduled it either.

“I think there’s some hurdles to overcome before we have a hearing,” Loertscher told Idaho Education News Thursday morning.

One hurdle is political opposition.

HJR 1 would appear to have solid support in House State Affairs: 11 of the committee’s 17 members have signed on as co-sponsors. But the amendment would need two-thirds support on the House floor, and then two-thirds backing in the Senate. And senators don’t seem to be “particularly energized” about the proposal, Loertscher said.

If HJR 1 managed to pass both houses, it would also need majority support from voters in November.

On Thursday, Otter also addressed a host of other education-related topics:

Taxes. Otter wouldn’t comment — at least directly — on the House-passed $28 million tax cut, and whether it could compromise education funding. “My priority is my education package.”

The tax cut passed the House last week; the Senate has not acted on it. Otter did not propose a tax cut, and it is not incorporated into his 2016-17 budget proposal.

However, Otter did announce that he signed into law a bill to bring Idaho tax law into conformity with federal tax codes. The conformity law, which was factored into the Otter budget, amounts to a $45 million tax cut.

The education budget. Otter took some shots at critics of his K-12 budget — and his proposal to restore district “operational funding” to 2009 levels.

Before the Great Recession, districts received $25,696 per classroom in operational funding, which administrators could use at their discretion, to pay for salaries and benefits, teacher training or utilities. Otter and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra have both proposed boosting operational spending from $23,868 per classroom to $25,696 per classroom.

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, Otter said. For one thing, enrollment is up 20,000 students from 2009 — meaning the state would be putting more money than ever into operational spending. In addition, the state is poised to put $73 million into the first two years of the teacher career ladder plan, and has increased funding for teacher training.

“We’re in excess of those (2009) numbers,” Otter said. “Those who suggest otherwise simply haven’t done their homework.”

STEM funding. Otter defended his plan to create a $10 million endowment that would fund initiatives in the “STEM” disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

He said legislators have raised a “reasonable question” about setting aside money into a long-term account. However, Otter called the fund a “financial magnet” that could attract matching private donations for STEM initiatives.

Presidential politics. Otter said he was leaning toward two fellow Republicans who also have Statehouse experience: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. But he wouldn’t commit to one or the other.

Bush, Otter said, was “very helpful” on education reform issues — including Propositions 1, 2 and 3, overwhelmingly rejected by Idaho voters in November 2012. “He became the national education governor,” Otter said.

Otter praised Kasich’s work as former House Budget Committee chairman. Kasich was able to write two balanced budgets during the Clinton years, said Otter, “because he was tough.”