Mortimer: a key, emerging player on K-12

After one election upset, and after an unorthodox committee assignment process, state Sen. Dean Mortimer is uniquely positioned to influence education policy.

After six years as second-in-command on the Senate Education Committee, Mortimer was promoted to committee chairman — replacing longtime Chairman John Goedde, ousted in the May GOP primary.

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Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls

Mortimer will retain a seat on the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. In past years, JFAC members were not allowed to chair Senate committees, and vice versa.

Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, will play key roles on two of the three most important committees dealing with K-12 issues. He will juggle these two jobs at a pivotal juncture. The most pressing policy issues facing Senate Education — tiered teacher licensing and a salary career ladder, restoring school district budgets and resolving the Idaho Education Network broadband contract mess — will require JFAC to find new or additional dollars.

Nowhere in Statehouse politics is there a greater overlap between budget-writing and policymaking.

A delicate balance

At the Statehouse, there is sometimes at least an undercurrent of tension between JFAC and the committees that work on policy — the “germane committees,” in Statehouse lexicon.

Mortimer saw this tension rise to the surface two sessions ago. In 2013, Goedde led a mini-revolt against a K-12 budget that he felt strayed too far into policymaking, usurping Senate Education’s authority. The Senate voted down JFAC’s first version of the budget, with several other committee chairs voting alongside Goedde. (Mortimer voted against the budget as well.) The vote forced a slight rewrite of the budget and extending the session by several days.

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Mortimer blamed the 2013 meltdown on “a lack of coordination and cooperation” between the two committees. That’s unlikely to occur again. Mortimer’s new vice chairman, Emmett Republican Steven Thayn, also sits on JFAC. Sandpoint Republican Shawn Keough, one of three newcomers to Senate Education, is a JFAC vice chairwoman.

“It’s nice to have two other JFAC members on my committee,” Mortimer said.

Education lobbyists expect some changes, working with an Education Committee chairman steeped in budget issues. “(It) could be an advantage,” Idaho Education Association president Penni Cyr said.

It could also force Senate Education to drill down deeper into numbers. Instead of offering more generic policy direction, the committee might be expected to look at how those recommendations work within the budget, said Rob Winslow of the Idaho Association of School Administrators.

On the issues

In an interview Wednesday, Mortimer didn’t tip his hand too much on the education and spending issues that will consume much of his time this session:

Tiered licensure and the career ladder. The Idaho Education Association remains opposed to the licensure plan, rewritten in November, but Mortimer says a State Board of Education committee did “good work” on the plan. But Mortimer believes it is past time to review the state’s licensing structure — and a pay schedule now based solely on experience and educational credentials.

Mortimer also believes it’s time to move aggressively to increase teacher salaries, especially Idaho’s $31,750-a-year starting salary. As a member of the State Board committee that worked on the $175 million plan, Mortimer pushed for implementing the pay raises over five years (the committee originally looked at a seven-year rollout).

Mortimer isn’t sure how this process will play out this session, but he believes it’s important to pass something this year. “Now is the time to put the additional funding in place. … We don’t want to lose an opportunity to compensate our educational professionals.”

Operational funding. Mortimer has been a strong advocate of restoring this funding — which districts often use to cover the cost of benefits or pay for transportation and utilities. The 2014 Legislature restored $35 million, but it will take another $78 million to bring this line item back to pre-recession levels.

Mortimer says the state should strike a balance between funding salaries and restoring so-called “discretionary” dollars, but he knows districts need the help. “I believe they still need as much flexibility as they can get.”

Idaho Education Network. The broadband network is an integral part of Idaho high schools, he says. But with the contract and funding for the $60 million broadband project in limbo, Mortimer knows something will have to change this year. “I don’t think we can be closed to any solutions.”

The work ahead

As vice chairman, Mortimer had played the role of deputy and presided over the sometimes-arcane agency rule making process. This long apprenticeship left Mortimer the leading candidate for the chairmanship when Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, lost in one of the biggest surprises of the May GOP primary.

Mortimer describes Goedde as a “great mentor,” and he doesn’t seem to be contemplating a big change in approach.

For instance, Mortimer plans to continue a practice that earned Goedde high marks from education lobbyists — bringing the groups together to look for common ground on contentious issues. This could be an involved process. In 2013, Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association says Goedde asked her to rewrite several labor bills modeled after the failed Proposition 1 labor law. Some of the rewrites passed over the IEA’s opposition, but others were short-term versions that had consensus support.

Another constant in Mortimer’s schedule will be the grind of JFAC — which meets for three or four hours every morning, throughout most of the session. JFAC has the most daunting workload of any committee, and in past years, Senate leaders have avoided putting committee chairs on the budget committee.

This year was different. Late in the December organizational session, Senate Republicans still had two JFAC seats to fill, and no takers. Mortimer and Resources Committee Chairman Steven Bair signed up for the dual role.

Mortimer says both assignments are in keeping with his background. As an MBA holder, he’s a self-described numbers person. As the son of a teacher’s aide, he says he is passionate about education, seeking out spots on education committees since coming to the Legislature in 2007.

Mortimer knows he has a challenging session ahead. “I’m not afraid of work,” he said.

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