Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer hopes his final legislative session will be his busiest and most productive.
Mortimer announced earlier this month he will not seek re-election in 2020. But he isn’t planning to coast to the finish line after 14 years in the Legislature.
“I still think it’s important to work on the funding formula,” Mortimer said. “It’s very important to work on K-3 literacy. To work on workforce training. It’s very important to work on flexibility, or mastery-based education.
“This year I hope to work harder and get more done than I’ve ever accomplished before.”
When Mortimer looks back on his career (including two years in the House and 12 in the Senate) education issues are among his proudest accomplishments.
He views his most recent major accomplishment as supporting the transformation of Eastern Idaho Technical College to becoming College of Eastern Idaho. Bonneville County voters in Mortimer’s home district approved the change at the polls in 2017, after the Legislature kicked in $5 million in seed money.
Mortimer said the transformation was a years-long effort that started with former Idaho Falls lawmaker Ann Rydalch before Mortimer even arrived in the Legislature.
Ultimately, the transformation expanded educational opportunities in Eastern Idaho and will play a role in preparing the region’s workforce, Mortimer said.
“To me, that was a very important thing that was worked on for many years,” Mortimer said.
Another big issue Mortimer reflects on is the relationships between educators, stakeholders, legislators and other players within the education policy setting arena.
During the recession, and particularly during the Students Come First / Propositions One, Two and Three debates in 2011-12, those relationships were strained or combative.
When Mortimer surveys the education landscape today, he said working relationships are more respectful and productive, which is something he wants to continue to work on.
“As you know, there was quite a bit of animosity early on in my legislative career,” Mortimer said. “I’ve had the opportunity, through the career ladder and different programs to support our education professionals and develop a better working relationship with them.”
During the 2015 session, Mortimer sponsored House Bill 296, the Legislature’s $250 million program to increase teacher salaries through the career ladder.
Several of Mortimer’s colleagues said he leaves a legacy of hard work after making significant contributions both in education and in setting the state budget. For years, Mortimer served as both chairman of Senate Education and a member of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC).
Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said it was unusual for a committee chair to also serve on JFAC. But Senate leadership made an exception for Mortimer because education is the state’s largest general fund budget item and they wanted members of the education committee to have a deep appreciation for budget implications.
Mortimer served as a bridge between the budget and policy committees.
“Very few people, seriously, could have handled that kind of load,” Hill said. “I saw him here (in the Statehouse) early in the mornings and I saw him here late at nights.”
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, enjoyed collaborating with Mortimer on education and budget issues alike.
“I value his work ethic and the level of detail he is willing to get into on issues. I appreciate that,” Horman said. “We work well together in that regard because we both care a lot about the details.”
Less experienced legislators on Senate Education looked up to Mortimer.
“He’s been a tremendous mentor to me,” Sen. Dave Lent, a first-term Republican from Idaho Falls. “I’ve spent many hours in his office, benefitting from his wealth of information.”
In the end, Mortimer said he will step down after this year to make way for new representation and new ideas. When he first arrived in the House in 2007, Mortimer and his wife, Judy, made a goal to serve 10 years.
After this session, he will have served 14.
“I believe strongly there are other people who would like to run and would like to serve, Mortimer said. “I felt like it was time.”
As for why he announced now, before the session, Mortimer reflects back on his own experience. When he was weighing his first Senate run, Mortimer approached incumbent office holder, the late Mel Richardson, and asked if it was true that Richardson planned to retire. If so, Mortimer wanted to throw his hat in.
“He kept putting me off and putting me off and putting me off,” Mortimer said. “At the time I said: ‘Ok I need to make a decision to run’ and so the reason I announced early is I think it is important for people to have an opportunity to prepare to run. And if you wait until the week before or the week of filing, it doesn’t give people a real good opportunity to prepare.”
Eastern Idaho reporter Devin Bodkin contributed to this report.