Legislators move rapidly into budget mode

Sometimes the Legislature can move quickly.

And such was the case Thursday morning, when the Senate spent about 35 minutes approving nearly $1.8 billion in K-12 budgets.

With no debate, the Senate sailed through the seven budget bills. Six passed on identical 35-0 votes. The seventh budget, putting $632.4 million of general fund money into school operations, passed 34-1; Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow, cast the only dissenting vote, but did not argue against the budget.

The bills put an additional $100 million into K-12, the state’s largest budget. Among the highlights:

  • $41.7 million for teacher raises, under year four of the state’s career ladder.
  • A $32 million deposit into the Public Education Stabilization Fund, a rainy-day savings account.
  • An additional $10.5 million for classroom technology.
  • A $7.2 million line item to help schools pay for employees’ health care costs.
  • A $4 million increase in discretionary spending for school districts.

Thursday’s near-unanimous votes were not necessarily surprising. This year’s seven K-12 budgets all passed the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee without dissent.

And the lightning-round Senate votes were not unprecedented. In recent sessions — since the K-12 budgets have adhered to recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force — the spending bills have breezed through both houses.

The K-12 budgets now head to the House.

Superintendent’s budget

Maintaining their fast pace, the Senate approved the 2018-19 budget for state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s department budget.

The State Department of Education budget passed 34-1, with Foreman again the lone dissenter.

While the bill passed without debate, House Majority Leader Chuck Winder sounded a brief warning. Citing restrictive “intent language” in the spending bill, the Boise Republican suggested the Senate might need to take a second look at Ybarra’s budget.

Winder’s comment was a thinly veiled reference to the Statehouse impasse over a reading test.

While Ybarra wants to launch a new statewide reading test in 2018-19, JFAC’s intent language forbids Ybarra from issuing or pursuing a contract for a new assessment. Some key legislators are questioning the need for a statewide test, and would prefer to allow local districts to pick a test. House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie VanOrden has drafted a bill to allow local districts to choose a test — but the bill’s prospects are uncertain. It was originally slated for a committee hearing Friday, but it was abruptly pulled from the agenda Thursday.

The reading test dispute has emerged as a major sticking point to adjourning the 2018 legislative session. Lawmakers hope to wrap up their business next week.

State Board backs statewide reading test

The State Board of Education came out unanimously against VanOrden’s reading bill late Thursday afternoon.

Board members, including Ybarra, voted unanimously to support a statewide reading test that is paid for with state funding. Board members voted to support moving from the Idaho Reading Indicator pilot test to a full-fledged statewide test.

The State Board called Thursday’s meeting specifically to address VanOrden’s House Bill 693.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra

Ybarra did not mince words. She said doing away with a statewide test would rob the state of consistent data that could be used as a yardstick to measure whether students are meeting grade-level benchmarks. She also said doing away with the statewide test would go against the policy direction outlined in a new statewide accountability system,  attached to Idaho’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Finally, Ybarra said struggling readers who move between school districts could fall through the cracks. She said it would be difficult to chart their progress if they are taking different tests in multiple school districts.

“I will testify, as a constitutional officer, against anything that removes a statewide assessment,” Ybarra said. “I want to reiterate my support for this direction.”

Board member Don Soltman said he had lunch with several school superintendents who support a statewide reading assessment and would prefer to see the new IRI pilot test expanded statewide.

State Board members had been gearing up to testify against HB 693 on Friday morning, before the bill was pulled from House Education’s agenda. They also said they knew of several school superintendents who were planning to testify as well.

HB 693 could resurface at any time in the waning days of the session.

Higher education budget

The House passed the higher education budget, approving a 2 percent overall spending increase for Idaho’s public colleges and universities.

Senate Bill 1344 calls for $295.8 million in general fund spending for 2018-19. That represents a 3 percent increase over current spending levels.

The budget includes $800,000 for the Idaho Regional Optical Network, and $350,000 for a new, systemwide degree audit and data system. Budget-writers also earmarked funding to pay for 3 percent raises for employees.

Sponsoring Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said budget-writers attempted to limit the number of “spending line items” and bring forth a responsible budget.

“There was a very surgical approach to these,” Horman said. “There were millions and millions of dollars requested.”

Rep. John Gannon

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, voted to pass the budget, but said legislators should do more to improve college affordability and increase Idaho’s go-on and education attainment rates.

“This is an underfunded budget that results in an unfair cost shift upon our kids,” Gannon said. “Fact is, until adults decide what to do, the kids are going to have to pay for it.”

In the end, the budget passed by a comfortable 54-13 margin. The Senate passed the budget Monday on a 33-2 vote, so it now heads to  Otter’s desk.

Scholarship funding

The House approved a funding increase for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship.

Tucked inside House Bill 686, the special programs budget for the State Board, is a $3.5 million funding increase for the popular need- and merit-based scholarship.

If signed into law, the bill would increase Opportunity Scholarship funding from $10 million to $13.5 million.

The House has skipped over a related bill, Senate Bill 1279, to give the State Board flexibility to direct up to 20 percent of Opportunity Scholarship funding to adults who wish to return to school and complete their unfinished degree.

Passing HB 686, the special programs budget, would not change how the Opportunity Scholarship is awarded. But that didn’t stop some legislators from voicing their concerns about expanding the scholarship to adults — strongly suggesting SB 1279 could be in for a tough debate and close vote when or if the House acts upon it.

Eventually, the House voted 39-28 to pass HB 686, which heads next to the Senate for consideration.

State Board budget

The House passed the State Board’s 2018-19 budget without floor debate.

House Bill 672 provides nearly $16 million for the education policy-setting board.

The State Board budget includes $250,000 in spending authority to hire a consultant to study Idaho’s higher education system, and look for cost savings that could be plowed into scholarships and student programs. It’s an offshoot from Otter’s failed $269,000 request to create a new higher education “CEO.” Many legislators, university officials and gubernatorial candidates balked at the proposal.

With the 52-14 House vote, the State Board budget heads to the Senate.

Career-technical, community college budgets

The Senate blasted through two more education budgets Thursday — again with little dissent.

  • Senate Bill 1357 would provide $66.4 million of general fund money for career-technical education, a 1.6 percent increase. The bill passed 34-1, with Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, casting the lone “no” vote.
  • Senate Bill 1359 is a $46.1 million budget for the state’s community college system. This represents a 17.1 percent increase, but much of the new money would go toward funding the newly created College of Eastern Idaho in Idaho Falls. This bill passed 33-1; Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, cast the lone “no” vote.

Both budgets go to the House.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report.

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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