Budget writers examine school funding, pay

State budget writers devoted their first meeting Tuesday to dissecting Gov. Butch Otter’s budget recommendations and brainstorming ideas about teacher pay.

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Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert

After the meeting, Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Co-chairman Dean Cameron said some lawmakers are considering offering state employees a raise, even though Otter’s budget doesn’t provide the funding. If state employees get a raise, Cameron said he would fight for teachers to get a boost in compensation, too.

“I understand the idea of not putting money towards an old (salary grid) system that is going to be replaced,” Cameron said. “I also understand, however, if we treat state employees differently – if we end up doing a CEC for state employees – then I think we should consider doing some modification in the grid for school teachers.”

Rep. Maxine Bell, the other JFAC co-chair, expressed concern that Otter’s staff was urging agency directors to reward employees with the savings achieved when other, more senior workers leave their jobs or retire.

Under Otter’s budget, state employees would not receive a raise and their health care costs would increase – even with the state picking up the tab for the employer portion of benefits.

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Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome

Budget analysts estimated it would cost $15 million for all state employees and educators to receive a 1 percent raise next year.

“Running a system this big on salary savings really troubles me,” Bell said.

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JFAC members will begin budget hearings in earnest next week. Committee members plan to conduct hearings with each state agency through Feb. 13, and then begin setting the budget piece by piece.

The public school budget hearing is set for Jan. 23, but that budget will be set later on a date to be determined.

Before any budgets are set, residents will have a chance to sound off on their priorities. At 8 a.m. Feb. 14, JFAC will convene a public hearing on budget and spending issues.

“It will not be a hearing on what the salary grid should look like,” Cameron said. “It will, however, be a hearing on how much money should be spent towards public ed or health and welfare.”

One big new expense in Otter’s K-12 budget is spending $35 million as part of a multi-year approach to reverse recession-era cuts to schools’ operations budgets. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said operations funding needs to be addressed this year. But Mortimer, who sits on both JFAC and the Senate Education Committee, said there will be a movement to define how operations funding can be used. In budget circles, operations funding is often referred to as discretionary spending.

“One of the things that we are going to try and do is describe what that discretionary money can be used for and actually redefine discretionary into operational class,” Mortimer said. “It will probably be a little better understood because it will be in line items. Some may consider it more restrictive, but others will say that’s what it needs to be used for.”

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is housed under Boise State University, and its staff members are state employees. 

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