2013 budget: Put money back into education

Tom Luna left no doubt Thursday as to what he thinks Idaho lawmakers should do with the $30.6 million left in limbo following the Students Come First repeal.

Luna, the Republican state superintendent of public instruction, told members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that all of it should go back to Idaho schools for their 2013 budgets.

Every penny.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Luna said.

“I want to make it clear how critical I think it is districts have that assurity and teachers have that assurity that the money and programs we committed to them in 2013 are made whole.”

When Idaho voters on November 6 repealed the three Students Come First laws, money that had been appropriated for technology, use-it-or-lose-it staffing flexibility, math and science teachers, professional development, unfreezing education credits on the salary grid and dual credit courses for high school students was left hanging in the balance.

On Jan. 9, state budget analyst Paul Headlee told JFAC members that, legally, three things could happen with the money.

  • Lawmakers could do nothing and that money would automatically be swept in education savings accounts at the end of the year.
  • Lawmakers could vote to return the $30.6 million to school districts.
  • Lawmakers could vote to reopen the 2013 schools budget and redirect some or all of that money to other state agencies or programs.

Headlee stressed the three choices were only “scenarios” based on the state’s legal footing following the repeal. He did not advocate for any particular solution.

Thursday’s budget hearing was an unusual, closely-watched affair that played out in front of a packed committee room. Before adjourning for the year, lawmakers must both decide on a fix for the $30.6 million from this year’s 2013 schools budget and pass the 2014 budget.

Luna told JFAC members that school districts had counted on the $30.6 million when they set this year’s budgets last summer. Many districts hired staffs and developed programs based on those funding assumptions, and Luna said he will fight to see they get what they planned on.

During the hearing, Luna stressed that, during the Great Recession, lawmakers never held back school funding during the middle of a school year.

“Not restoring these funds now would amount to that,” Luna said.

By and large, budget writers expressed support for Luna’s call for action.

“I think that we simply need to take that money and send it right out to the schools immediately and let them use it as they need to,” said. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Latah. “I understood (Luna) to say that, I hope that wasn’t just wishful thinking, but it needs to be expedited.

“We have to take the most mature approach we can to the fact that those (laws) were overturned and the public spoke,”Ringo continued. “So let’s send that money out to the districts and let them use it the way they need to.”

Rep. Jeff Thompson, an Idaho Falls Republican who carried the school funding bills in the House last year, said he agrees the $30.6 million should be returned to schools.

“I agree with that 100 percent,” Thompson said. “That should have already been accomplished. We were set to do that (in JFAC) as soon as we got here at the start of the session, but then we realized it needed to be handled in the House Education Committee and Senate Education Committee. So it’s in their hands right now, and they’re creating legislation to do that.”

Rep. Linden Bateman, an Idaho Falls Republican who sits on the Education Committee, also wants schools to receive all of the money they planned on for this year.

“Return it to the districts and let them spend it with as much latitude as possible,” Bateman said.

For the complete text of Luna’s presentation, click here. For Luna’s complete budget request, click here.

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