Senate school budget vote: an analysis

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett

It has been, as Sen. Steven Thayn put it Wednesday, a “dysfunctional” session on education issues.

And he said that before senators did something extremely unusual: They voted down a public schools budget on a narrow 17-18 vote.

The Senate debate illustrated the long shadow the Students Come First repeal has cast over the 2013 legislative session.

This may have been seen as a transition year of sorts on the education issue: a breather, after voters resoundingly rejected the Students Come First laws in November. When Gov. Butch Otter assembled a task force to look at education reform — and the group soon decided that it would not present recommendations to the 2013 Legislature — it may have seemed like lawmakers could put off difficult decisions for a year.

Transition year or not, lawmakers still have to write a budget. And writing a budget has proven to be the last big battle of the 2013 legislative session.

Legislators are of two minds about what to do with $34 million — the money Otter and state schools superintendent Tom Luna set aside for the task force’s work. Once the task force decided it would not have proposals for the 2013 Legislature, that put the money up for grabs.

In essence, the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee decided to put this money into a couple of one-time initiatives: $21 million for professional development and locally written pay for performance plans; and $13.4 million for classroom technology.

Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise

On Wednesday, some of the same lawmakers who supported the Students Come First laws in 2011 stood up on the Senate floor to chide JFAC for using the money to resuscitate the rejected Proposition 2 merit pay law and the Proposition 3 classroom technology law. “Does this (budget) include parts of Students Come First or parts of the props?” said Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise. “I say yes it does.”

Adding to the irony: The floor sponsor of the school spending proposal was Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Cameron, the Legislature’s preeminent budget-writer, opposed the Students Come First proposals in 2011.

Little wonder, then, that Cameron described Wednesday’s debate as surreal.

Here’s a little more irony: One of the hottest education debates this session, before Wednesday’s Senate vote, has centered on a series of bills that revisited elements of Proposition 1, the collective bargaining law.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, suggested the budget revisited Students Come First — but his committee has heard, and endorsed a procession of bills with their origins in Proposition 1. One, eliminating a teacher early retirement plan, was co-sponsored by Bayer.

In fairness to the lawmakers, the task force did say at its organizational Jan. 11 meeting that it would not consider school labor issues. That, in essence, kicked the issue back to the Legislature — at the very start of the 2013 session.

The dysfunctional session, as Thayn called it.

A session where lawmakers have considered bills to give school districts more money for teacher pay — and bills giving districts discretion to cut teacher salaries. A session of waiting on a task force (Thayn, for his part, says he’s “not real hopeful” the group will craft consensus).

“It’s somewhat to be expected, this dysfunctionality,” he said.

Dysfunctional also aptly describes the mood Wednesday, as lawmakers face the highly unusual proposition of rewriting a $1.3 billion budget that accounts for 47 percent of the state general fund. At the very least, lawmakers’ plans of adjourning by Friday have probably been derailed.

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona

During a break on the House floor, Iona Republican Rep. Tom Loertscher tried to find humor in the moment. He cued up a song on his laptop: the Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday Monday.”

Said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, “That’s too cute.”

More reading at Idaho Education News: Link to our main story and roll call on the Senate vote; debate quotes and vote reactions; and Luna’s hopes to convene stakeholders and break the impasse.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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