Budget-writers return to work — and take a first look at 2022’s big decisions

With a few questions, and no drama, legislative budget-writers took a first look at education spending plans Tuesday.

Still, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee hearing offered a few hints at the budget debates that could unfold in 83 days — when lawmakers convene for an election-year 2022 session, a record-shattering surplus in hand.

JFAC, a powerful House-Senate committee, spends weeks sorting through state agency spending proposals and the governor’s budget recommendations. Ultimately, JFAC will fashion these proposals into budget bills that drive state government spending. But the committee cannot act alone — all of their bills must pass the House and Senate before they ever reach the governor’s desk — so its annual fall meetings are strictly informational.

On Tuesday afternoon, JFAC looked at state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s 2022-23 budget request for K-12. Ybarra is seeking more than $2.2 billion in state general fund tax dollars, an 8.5% increase from the current year. Her proposal includes $39.3 million in new money for optional, all-day kindergarten.

JFAC also took a first look at the higher education requests. All told, the four-year schools are seeking $324.5 million from the general fund — a 3.6% increase, buoyed largely by a list of line-item requests at the individual schools. The University of Idaho, for example, is requesting more than $2 million for a digital learning program upgrade. Boise State University wants nearly $1.8 million to expand its Community Impact Program, a pilot program to support online students in rural Idaho.

But in the question-and-answer sessions, JFAC members registered a few concerns, which could resurface during the 2022 session.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, lamented the school districts’ reluctance to use federal coronavirus stimulus aid to address areas they have called pressing needs, such as staffing. “I am perplexed as to why those funds are not being utilized.”

The schools have received some $850 million in federal aid, and have spent about $260 million, said Jared Tatro, a deputy division manager for the state’s Legislative Services Office.

Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, noted a $2.5 million increase in the higher education budget — and asked if that money was there to reverse budget cuts from earlier this year. Giddings and other conservative lawmakers spent much of the 2021 session criticizing the universities for pushing what they call a social-justice agenda. By spring, lawmakers cut $1.5 million from Boise State and $500,000 each from the U of I and Idaho State University.

The $2.5 million cuts — one defining point in the 2021 session — were not permanent, LSO senior budget analyst Janet Jessup told Giddings.

JFAC glosses over McGeachin request — for now

When they convene in January, JFAC will have to sift through 37 “supplemental” budget requests — short-term items for the current spending year, which runs through June 30.

The committee didn’t dive into any of these items, including a small but politically sensitive request from Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin.

McGeachin has maintained that she needs the $50,000 of taxpayer funding to cover legal costs from a public records dispute — in part, to cover nearly $29,000 she now owes the Idaho Press Club. She has never outlined the need for $50,000, and told the Idaho Capital Sun that she has no invoices outlining the costs.

JFAC members didn’t bring up her request Tuesday, and McGeachin wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting.

The battle over the McGeachin records dates back to late spring.

Several news organizations, including Idaho Education News, filed public records requests for comments submitted to McGeachin’s education indoctrination task force. McGeachin refused to release the records in full and sought to redact the commenters’ names.

The Idaho Press Club sued. In August, District Judge Steven Hippler ordered McGeachin to release the records in full, ordered McGeachin to cover the Press Club’s legal costs, and fined McGeachin $750 for bad-faith violations of the law.

Supplemental budget bills also have to go through both houses, and to the governor.

‘An extreme amount of money’

JFAC began its day getting briefed on the state’s record-setting budget surplus — which could bankroll beefed-up spending in any number of areas, including public schools.

State policy analysts Tuesday pegged the surplus at $1.45 billion, roughly the same sum they offered in August.

Legislative Budget Division Manager Keith Bybee called it “an extreme amount of money.”

Individual income taxes, corporate income taxes and sales taxes are driving larger-than-expected revenues, said state revenue analyst Erin Phipps. “Sales and individual income tax account for over 70% of that $144 million” in unanticipated revenues, she told the committee.

The surplus sets the table for JFAC’s upcoming discussions on education budgets, including K-12 and higher education. The committee’s meetings this week will mark its first formal look at 2022-23 school budget proposals. Lawmakers appropriated record amounts to K-12 last spring.

Republican Gov. Brad Little has urged caution with the surplus, while the Idaho Education Association this summer called it a “golden opportunity” for underfunded schools.

The surplus layers onto a combined $17.7 billion that have been injected into Idaho through federal coronavirus relief packages over the last two years, by the count of Paul Headlee, LSO’s deputy director. A considerable portion of that — including $440 million for K-12 schools in the latest federal law — has gone directly to education.

JFAC’s meetings will continue Wednesday and Thursday. Check back at Idaho Education News for daily coverage.

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