Mortimer floats $20.3 million plan to address insurance costs

Sen. Dean Mortimer has a $20.3 million plan to help schools cover health insurance costs.

Education groups are split on the idea. Depending on who you listen to, Mortimer’s plan could help schools attract and keep teachers. Or, it could exacerbate Idaho’s teacher shortage.

At some point, the Senate Education Committee will vote on the idea.

Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, uses some complicated math to construct his Senate Bill 1096.

First, he looks at the amount of money agencies receive to enroll workers in Idaho’s state employee health insurance plan. That number varies year to year. For 2017-18, it’s expected to be $860 per employee.

Then, he looks at the number of state-funded school staff positions, based on Idaho’s 15,199 classroom “support units.” This comes to roughly 23,500 positions.

Multiplying this number by $860 per employee, he arrives at a line item that comes in at roughly $20.3 million.

The $20.3 million doesn’t cover schools’ health insurance costs. It doesn’t even come close. Overall, schools are shelling out about $160 million a year on insurance.

But Mortimer says his bill accomplishes two key objectives. By covering a portion of health insurance costs, the state would free up some money for schools to address their local priorities. And by creating a budget line item, the Legislature is forced to look at school health insurance costs — a topic that he says has been “discussed and dismissed” for too long.

“This is one of the most important pieces of legislation I’ve worked on in education for many years,” Mortimer, an 11-year legislative veteran, said during a Senate Education hearing Monday afternoon.

Testimony was mixed, however.

Idaho Falls Superintendent Georg Boland
George Boland

Idaho Falls district Superintendent George Boland said the bill would help his district hang on to teachers, who sometimes take jobs in states with more generous benefits plans. Even after increasing deductibles and co-pays, Idaho Falls is scrambling to cover insurance costs, which have gone up 123 percent since 2001-02.

The Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho School Boards Association support Mortimer’s bill.

The Idaho Education Association opposes the bill. On Monday, IEA President Penni Cyr called Mortimer’s plan an “unfundable mandate” that could eventually force the state to siphon money away from the career ladder, Idaho’s five-year plan to boost teacher salaries.

Penni Cyr
Penni Cyr

Mortimer — a powerful lawmaker who chairs Senate Education and sits on the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee — is stepping into an ongoing political debate over paying for school employees’ benefits.

Gov. Butch Otter has proposed a $15 million line item to offset health insurance costs. On the other side of the debate, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra would rather give schools more “discretionary” money that they can use to cover insurance costs, or other operations.

It will be up to the budget and policy committees to weigh in.

JFAC is scheduled to draw up education budgets Monday — and in the process, budget-writers will have to confront the benefits issue. Meanwhile, Mortimer wants to bring SB 1096 back to Senate Education for a vote, but no date is set.