With thoughts of budget cuts and department consolidations fresh in their minds due to Governor Otter’s State of the State address, Democratic and Republican lawmakers had a chance to react to the remarks delivered by the Governor. Legislators met with members of the media outside the House chamber to react to Otter’s speech and $2.45 billion budget. Most of the discussion focused on funding of K-12 education.
Sen. Dean Cameron, a Republican from Rupert and Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he believed the Governor gave a good, but tough speech. Cameron said both the Governor and Legislature have been forced to deal with situations they didn’t create, but said they would work to resolve the fiscal crisis in a very conservative manner.
Cameron also broached the subject of Otter’s proposed $27 million holdback for public school for the remaining fiscal year, which was a particularly divisive topic during the post-speech media session for legislators.
“Public schools are the highest priority,” said Cameron. “But numbers are numbers.”
Democratic leaders didn’t feel the same way and in fact, House Minority Leader John Rusche, from Lewiston, expressed almost opposite sentiments than those of Cameron. Rusche said with the proposed cuts to public education funding, the state would lose the opportunity to attract businesses because of an under-qualified workforce. He also said that as the Governor and the legislature cut education funding, an increasing responsibility for funding is being transferred to school districts, many of which have already declared financial emergencies.
Rusche did show mild support for Otter’s plan to continue investing in the Idaho Education Network, which allows schools to link up and interact with one another via the internet, but he didn’t give the Governor much more credit than that.
“I don’t think you can teach 4th graders over fiber optics,” said Rusche. “You need a teacher there interacting with the kids and their families.”
Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, from Boise, said Otter’s planned cuts for education aren’t representative of the views of the people of Idaho. Kelly said that in talks with constituents about what they want, the majority said they want “improved education, not a dismantling of the system.”
Kelly also expressed concerns about the reaction of expanding and relocating businesses would view Idaho’s approach to education. She said that in order to pull the economy out of its current state, the government must continue to invest in the next generation of learners and show businesses a willingness to fund public education. Kelly said Otter’s holdback and cuts in next year’s budget just aren’t what Idaho needs.
“A message from this leadership is education is not valuable,” said Kelly. “The next generation is just going to have to figure things out for themselves.”
Cameron and Rusche also differed on just exactly how Otter’s budget should be handled by the Legislature. The two lawmakers disagreed on just how to view the expected 3.5 percent growth in revenue for fiscal year 2011. If the number, which is a product of the Governor’s own economist Mike Ferguson, is correct, it could amount to about $80 million.
Cameron again came favors a more conservative approach and agreed the Otter, who left the money out of the budget for FY ‘2011, made the right call in doing so. Cameron said he is worried the numbers could be wrong, as he said they have been in the past, and he doesn’t want to help create a budget that would require holdbacks in the future.
“It is much easier setting a budget based on lower estimates,” said Cameron. “Holdbacks are horrible for public schools.”
Rusche said he thinks the Governor may need to take another look at the revenue forecast and put more faith in his own staff.
“He must not even believe his own economist,” said Rusche.