Budget committee begins dissecting Otter’s spending plan

A day after Gov. Butch Otter delivered his State of the State address, the Legislature’s joint budget committee devoted its first meeting to taking a closer look at his spending proposals.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee heard 2 1/2 hours of briefings from budget analysts and Otter’s staff.

Tuesday’s early reaction to Otter’s proposals — particularly for boosting education funding by 7.9 percent next year — was positive.

Although Otter issued his recommendations, JFAC and the Legislature as a whole must set and approve actual budgets. That means Otter needs cooperation from the Legislature for his initiatives to take off.

Dean Mortimer
Sen. Dean Mortimer

“Education has been a forefront issue of the governor, and this year is another indication of how important education is to him,” said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.

Mortimer enjoys considerable influence as a JFAC member and as Senate Education Committee chairman.

“There are some items in that budget that will help education move along very nicely,” Mortimer continued.

Mortimer was particularly pleased with Otter’s recommendation to spend $39.9 million to raise teacher salaries through the second year of the career ladder. He also spoke favorably of Otter’s proposal to launch a $10.7 million literacy program.

“That’s been a real issue for me over the last couple of years to think about how we can get those students to be reading by grade level by third grade,” Mortimer said. “I’m excited to maybe put some emphasis in that literacy program.”

Keough 2016 JFAC
Sen. Shawn Keough

Tuesday’s JFAC meeting was also significant because the joint committee welcomed a new co-chairwoman, Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.

Keough replaced former co-chairman Dean Cameron, Otter’s new head of the Department of Insurance.

Keough said she was a little anxious about her first meeting wielding the chair’s gavel and did not sleep much Monday night. But she said her experience on the committee and past position as a vice chairwoman helped prepare her for the new, elevated role.

Tuesday’s briefings will help prepare committee members for the next two months of budget-setting, Keough said.

After the meeting, Keough also praised Otter’s emphasis on education policy and funding.

“He’s laid out some goals that many agree with in terms of continuing our promise to fund or backfill K-12 after the downturn,” Keough said. “When you look at how much money out of our budget goes to K-12 education in particular, and then higher education, all together there is clearly a commitment.”

Under Otter’s budget, about 48 percent of general fund spending would be devoted to K-12.

Rep. Wendy Horman, an Idaho Falls Republican who sits on JFAC, also backed Otter’s emphasis on education funding, saying she has “heard no opposition” to the plan to continue increasing teacher pay.

“I haven’t had any legislators come to me and say, ‘No, we don’t want to fund that second year,’” Horman said after Otter’s speech. “Everyone I have talked to is very supportive of funding that second year of the career ladder.”

JFAC will meet daily to begin setting state agency budgets. Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra is expected to present her budget recommendation on Jan. 28.