Statehouse roundup, 3.22.17: Senate passes education budgets, grocery tax repeal

The Senate swiftly and unanimously passed the 2017-18 school budgets during a flurry of activity Wednesday afternoon.

Considered as a whole, the seven budgets would increase state general fund K-12 spending by 6.3 percent, or a little more than $100 million.

All told, it took the Senate 43 minutes to endorse nearly $1.7 billion in general fund spending for public schools.

Wednesday’s Senate vote also means the school budgets are heading to the desk of Gov. Butch Otter with some serious legislative momentum. The House comfortably passed each of the school budgets during a Monday morning sprint on the House floor. Although the Legislature includes 105 members between the House and Senate, none of the education budgets picked up more than three “no” votes. Two of the seven passed through both legislative chambers unanimously.

Perhaps the biggest headline from the school budgets is a $61.9 million plan to award teacher raises under the third year of the Legislature’s career ladder salary law. The 2015 career ladder is Idaho’s five-year, $250 million plan to recruit and retain teachers.

Sen. Dean Mortimer

Perhaps the biggest source of controversy in the budgets was health insurance costs.

When the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee wrote the budgets, two prominent senators made an unsuccessful push for a new $15.2 million line item to help offset school employees’ heath care costs. Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and JFAC co-Chairwoman Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, sided with Otter on the line item. But JFAC sided with a coalition of budget-writers who instead voted to increase discretionary spending for school districts.

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This plan would increase discretionary spending from $25,696 per classroom to $26,748 in 2017-18. Of that $26,748 figure, $11,242 would be specifically carved out for districts to use on benefits costs. If districts don’t spend all of the $11,242 on health care, they may then spend the balance at their discretion.

Mortimer stopped short of debating against this spending plan Wednesday. Instead, he said he was taking responsibility for not making a strong enough case for an earmark to  help school districts keep up with rising insurance costs.

“This budget didn’t address that,” Mortimer said. “We could have done a little better.”

In the end, Mortimer vowed to continue the debate into future legislative sessions.

Keough did not raise the health care issue during floor debate, and instead expressed her overall support for the school budget.

“Members of (JFAC) worked really hard on this budget, and I appreciate their work,” Keough said. “It is a sound budget that does a lot of good things for public schools.”

Had Mortimer and Keough pushed the issue and rallied enough opposition to kill the school budget, they would have surely extended the 2017 session passed Friday’s targeted adjournment date.

Still, prospects for adjournment remain up in the air, especially after the Senate killed a $300 million transportation bill earlier Wednesday.

As the Senate adjoined for the day Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he believes there “is a possible chance” the Legislature can adjourn on Friday. At the beginning of the week, Davis had announced adjourning by Friday was “extremely doable.”

Senate repeals sales tax on groceries

Before taking up the school budgets, the Senate voted to repeal Idaho’s sales tax on groceries — a move that critics say could threaten education funding.

The 25-10 vote sets up a potential showdown with the House, and Otter, who has said he opposes a repeal.

The road to a possible repeal has been in the works for nearly a week. Last week, senators voted to amend a House-passed bill to reduce income taxes, morphing it into a grocery tax relief bill.

During Wednesday’s debate, supporters said the repeal would provide across-the-board tax relief for all Idahoans. But Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, said the repeal would jeopardize funding for teacher pay raises. (More quotes and a roll call from Wednesday’s vote, from Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.)

Authored by Sen. Clifford Bayer, R-Meridian, the amended bill would phase out the state’s income tax credit for groceries, which generally comes to $100 per person. Phasing out the credit would cover most — but not all — of the costs of the grocery tax repeal.

And that has prompted Otter’s opposition.

“Removing the sales tax on groceries would reduce general fund revenue by almost $194 million, which is almost $48 million more than the amount now being paid out through the grocery tax credit,” Otter said last week in a letter to Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, obtained by the Spokesman-Review. “That reduction would make it more difficult to meet our commitments to improving Idaho’s education system.”

Otter’s letter does not directly threaten a veto. And Wednesday’s Senate vote exceeds the two-thirds threshold needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

However, the House would still need to endorse the significant changes in an income tax bill that passed on a 58-11 party-line vote on Feb. 2.

Senate passes charter bill

Without any debate, the Senate passed a bill that supporters say is designed to streamline the process for creating new charter schools.

Senators voted 33-0 to pass House Bill 279, which was pushed by Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian.

HB 279 replaces an earlier charter school bill that generated controversy in the House Education Committee. Unlike the original bill, HB 279 leaves in place a section of Idaho law requiring charter school authorizers ensure charters comply with Idaho’s general education laws.

Den Hartog said the new bill removes burdens charter school petitioners seek while leaving in place accountability measures.

“It can now take up to two years to open a new charter schools,” she said. “Many of our charter schools have long wait lists, and there is demand that needs to be filled.”

HB 279 next heads to Otter’s desk for final consideration. It passed the House 65-5 on March 15.

Senate recognizes Boise teacher

The Senate kicked off the 73rd legislative day by honoring Boise teacher Sonia Galaviz.

Senators voted unanimously to pass House Concurrent Resolution 26, which recognizes “Galaviz for her commitment to her students and her exemplary conduct as an Idaho teacher.”

Galaviz teaches at Garfield Elementary, is a champion of the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math and is known for making home visits with each of her student’s families.

HCR 26 specifically honors Galaviz for receiving the National Education Association’s Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence on Feb. 10.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, a Boise Democrat and retired teacher, sponsored the resolution honoring Galaviz.

“She has the unique ability to find students’ hidden strength through home visit and supplementing her curriculum with material that reflected her students’ background,” Ward-Engelking said.

Senate approval was the last legislative hurdle for HCR 26. It previously cleared the House on March 14.

Further reading: read Idaho Education News’ in-depth feature on Galaviz.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.