Members of the Idaho House approved a $1.2 billion budget for public schools in Idaho after a lengthy and, at times, emotional debate on the House floor. The budget passed by lawmakers contains an overall reduction of 7.5 percent, or $128 million in funding.
The cuts would affect a myriad of areas across the education spectrum. Pay for teachers and support staff would likely see reductions, as would funding for bus transportation and field trips.
Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, one of the co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), which initially set the budget for schools, told lawmakers at the beginning of the debate that the budget wasn't optimal, but it was necessary considering the dire economic times in which the state finds itself. Bell said that committee members worked with much intensity to lessen the impact of the cuts and soften the blows of the economic downturn on the education budget.
The state could face additional and more drastic cuts next year, warned Bell. She told lawmakers that in the budget for the current fiscal year, lawmakers had the ability to "backfill" the cuts made last year with money from federal stimulus funds, which made it seem as though the budgetary concerns were less serious than fiscal year 2011. Bell said that the lawmakers, with the help of the Land Board, have again supplemented ordinary tax revenue used for education with $22 million from a reserve account. That, Bell believes, could lead to even steeper cuts in years to come.
"The less one-time money we have in this, the less pain we'll have in the future,” said Bell. "I hope I don't ever have to do this again."
Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, who also co-chairs JFAC, echoed the sentiments of Bell, saying that the budget came out of necessity due to economic forecasts.
"These are probably not the budget we would put out in better times," Bolz admitted to fellow lawmakers.
For House Republicans, like Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, and Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur D'Alene, much like Bell and Bolz, the cuts to education were not an option. Nonini told lawmakers that he feels the budgets laid out by the committee were not attempts to restructure education in the state according to political agendas, but rather a result of the lagging economy, which, at one point, he called "the enemy." Wood said that in difficult times, legislators must make difficult decisions and the education budget was a very difficult decision for him to make.
For House Democrats, the cuts were a result of economic pessimism practices by Republicans. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur D'Alene, said that at the beginning of the process, when lawmakers were choosing economic forecasts on which to base budgets, they should have chosen the forecast that wasn't as drastic and would have allowed for more spending in necessary areas. Sayler rejected the notion that the hands of lawmakers were tied throughout the legislative process.
"There was a choice," said Sayler.
Others Democrats felt Republicans didn't explore enough options to close budget holes. Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said members of the House should have looked at eliminating sales tax exemptions for what she called "special interests,” adding more tax collectors to find and capture unpaid taxes, delaying the implementation of election consolidation measures, and reducing the grocery tax credit so it would only apply to low-income citizens. King said that the failure of lawmakers to close gaps and properly fund education will lead to larger class sizes, which, she claims, will mean less one-on-one time for Idaho students.
Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, issued a warning to budgets hawks concerned only with the Idaho state constitutional provision which mandates that the state maintains a balanced budget. Boe pointed out the Idaho Constitution requires the state to provide a "general, uniform, and thorough" education for children, a provision she feels would not be met by the budget proposed by members of JFAC. She said that although the requirement to provide a "general" education is probably satisfied by the budgets, rural schools will feel the non-uniformity of the cuts because they often have fewer resources to work with than larger districts. As for the "thorough" provision, Boe said that she believes that businesses will soon become unwilling to relocate to the state because of an under-prepared workforce that she feels will likely result from the cuts.
Before the final vote was taken, Bell spoke again, and summed it up for those in support of the budget.
"The arithmetic wins," said Bell.
Lawmakers voted 50-19 to approve the budget, which has already received clearance from the Senate. It now heads to the desk of Gov. Butch Otter.
(Note: For a more detailed explanation of the budget, view IdahoReporter.com's coverage of the committee hearing on the bill here.)