Analysis: Otter sets tone for K-12 funding — and a quiet session

There was no mistaking Gov. Butch Otter’s top priority in his 10th State of the State Address Monday.

Otter spent roughly half of his time talking about education and education funding. He used the televised address to tout a wish list of funding initiatives — most of them rooted in the recommendations from his education task force of 2013.

A State of the State Address is also a governor’s one best chance to set the tone for the session to follow. Here too, there was no mistaking Otter’s tone. He clearly wants legislators to set a budget, backfill the “K-through-career” school system — and go home.

There weren’t really new initiatives in Otter’s budget request, which would boost K-12 funding by 7.9 percent. New money, to be sure. But continued funding of task force recommendations:

  • The career ladder, passed in 2015, would get a $39.9 million infusion of cash.
  • School districts would finally see “discretionary” funding return to pre-recession levels, at a cost of close to $30 million. Administrators and education groups have been lobbying hard for this money, saying it gives districts the flexibility to cover a host of operational needs.
  • A new literacy proficiency initiative is in line for $10.7 million.
  • The shift to mastery-based learning would get a $1.1 million funding infusion.

In 2013, the task force’s recommendations were billed as a five-year, $350 million plan. Otter wants to pick up the pace; in Year Three, he says he sees the opportunity to fully restore discretionary dollars, ahead of schedule.

By focusing on K-12 funding, Otter spent Monday reinforcing a topic of common ground.

By all indications, the Legislature appears ready to follow last year’s 7.4 percent budget increase for K-12 with a similar effort in 2016. On Thursday, at a legislative preview sponsored by the Associated Press, House Speaker Scott Bedke went so far as to predict that a robust K-12 funding increase seems to be a “foregone conclusion.” About two hours after Otter wrapped up his speech, his State Board of Education met by conference call, and unanimously gave a blanket endorsement to the 2016-17 budget proposals.

Otter’s 35-minute speech sidestepped some potential sticky issues — starting with taxes. A month after a legislative “working group” adjourned without recommendations for retooling tax code, Otter was silent on the tax topic. His budget does contain some tax relief; by conforming with federal tax codes, Idaho would make permanent about 50 tax breaks that are already on the books. Conformity isn’t cheap — it would cost $17.2 million for the rest of the 2015-16 budget year, and $28.7 million in the budget year that begins July 1. On the other hand, conformity doesn’t have the political sex appeal of a more aggressive tax cut.

Tax relief wasn’t the only omission in Otter’s speech. He took a pass on any number of hot-button topics — from refugee relocation to gun control to public lands and the ongoing armed standoff at an Oregon federal wildlife refuge. In past years, such topics could have made for an easy applause line.

And any of these issues — like the unexpected child-support fracas of 2015 — have the potential of derailing and delaying the 2016 session.

This year, Otter and legislative leaders are pushing for a short session, and presumably a quiet session. Bedke has floated a St. Patrick’s Day target for adjournment, which may be on the optimistic side.

By what he didn’t say — and what he did say — Otter made clear his wishes for a session devoid of dramatics. “It is my sincere wish that we undertake our work together in this legislative session without keeping one eye on the upcoming election.”

Easy for Otter to say. Unlike his audience of legislators, his name won’t appear on a ballot this year. The two-year terms of all 105 lawmakers end this year. Some will have May primaries followed by general elections in November.

Starting Tuesday, legislators will have their chance, as a body, to set the priorities and the tone for the 2016 session.

Read more: Get the lowdown on Gov. Butch Otter’s K-12 budget request.