Senate rejects public schools budget

In a historic and narrow vote, the Senate on Wednesday rejected the $1.308 billion 2013-14 budget for public schools — leaving legislative leaders to try to figure out their next moves.

The late afternoon developments:

  • The budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will not meet before Friday, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said, allowing the Senate Education Committee to make the first move on breaking the impasse.
  • Senate Education will meet Thursday afternoon — and on their agenda is House Bill 65, a $30.6 million funding fix for 2012-13, which gives schools back the money that had been allocated in the Students Come First laws. This is the fourth time the bill has appeared on the committee’s agenda in the past week. The House passed the funding fix on Feb. 19, on a 69-0 vote.
  • Gov. Butch Otter was meeting with GOP legislative leaders, including Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde and Sen. Dean Cameron, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, according to Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
  • Meanwhile, state schools superintendent Tom Luna said he was trying to get a meeting scheduled Wednesday with education leaders to get the process moving.

The Senate vote will almost certainly extend the 2013 legislative session at least into next week. Lawmakers had hoped to adjourn by Friday.

But the Legislature is heading into unfamiliar terrain. Cameron, a 24-year senator and longtime co-chairman of JFAC, said he could not recall a school budget failing during his time in the Legislature. Cameron, R-Rupert, carried the ill-fated bill on the Senate floor.

Wednesday’s debate

The budget, representing a 2.2 percent general fund increase for K-12, enjoyed bipartisan support in JFAC and in the House, where it passed on a 52-16 vote Friday.

But on Wednesday, 18 senators, all Republicans, derailed the spending plan.

Their criticisms had less to do with the actual spending figure. “I’ve got no problem with the bottom line in this budget,” said Goedde, the Coeur d’Alene Republican who led the opposition to the budget.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, left, led opposition to the $1.308 billion budget. Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Chairman Dean Cameron presented the budget bill.

Instead, the opposition centered on the way the bill directed spending. The budget earmarked $21 million for professional development and locally drafted merit pay plans; $13.4 million for classroom technology; and restored two years of pay to the teacher salary grid, which had been frozen during the recession.

Critics said these sections of the budget — known as legislative “intent language” — went too far to insert policy into spending bills, making decisions best left to the committees that study such matters.

The roll call reflected the tension between JFAC and the Senate Education Committee. All seven Republicans on the Education Committee opposed the K-12 budget. But opposition to the budget was widespread within the Senate GOP caucus. The four-member Republican leadership team split on the budget. Five of the Senate’s 10 JFAC members voted no, as they had in committee earlier this month. Five of the Senate’s 10 committee chairs opposed the bill — another sign, perhaps, of concern over the bill’s “intent language.”

Even 13-year Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, chairwoman of the Senate’s Judiciary and Rules Committee, agreed that the Legislature’s policy committees needed more input in the budget process — but she ultimately voted for the budget.

Rewriting the budget

How the budget-writing process plays out now is open to speculation.

JFAC must write a new budget — and as a matter of procedure, the committee will have to come out with a different bottom-line number than the $1,308,365,400 general fund budget proposed Wednesday. That may be little more than a cosmetic change, Cameron said. But with most other money already allocated for 2013-14, the committee may have only one direction to go: downward.

As Cameron noted in debate, Wednesday’s public school budget proposal was still $110 million below the 2009 public schools budget.

But the thornier issue, illustrated in Wednesday morning’s debate, is not the bottom-line dollar amount. The debate will likely focus on the language of the school budget — and whether a rewrite would again direct money into professional development, pay for performance, classroom technology and the teacher salary grid.

These concepts enjoyed strong support heading into Wednesday’s vote. Luna supported the budget plan. So did a range of education groups: the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho Education Association.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley

This blueprint also enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in JFAC and in the House — facts that weren’t lost on Cameron and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

Cameron doesn’t expect budget-writers to “acquiesce” to opponents who want less money earmarked into specific programs and want more money put into discretionary spending.

Bedke’s reaction was pointed. “The Senate’s got a little problem now, and let’s see what they do to fix it.”

How they voted

Yes (10 Republicans, 7 Democrats): Les Bock, D-Boise; Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise; Dean Cameron, R-Rupert; Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls; Branden Durst, D-Boise; Brent Hill, R-Rexburg; Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston; Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello; Todd Lakey, R-Nampa; Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston; Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa; Jim Rice, R-Caldwell; Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow; Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; John Tippets, R-Montpelier; Elliot Werk, D-Boise.

No (18 Republicans, 0 Democrats): Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot; Cliff Bayer, R-Boise; Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson; Russell Fulcher, R-Meridian; John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene; Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon; Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian; Lee Heider, R_Twin Falls; Fred Martin, R-Boise; Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls; Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene; Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood;  Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls; Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth; Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton; Steven Thayn, R-Emmett; Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens; Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

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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