Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Heading for change

Legislators warn of levy, redistricting and future upheaval


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

State Sen. Michelle Stennett talks about redistricting with south valley voters Saturday in Bellevue. Because of the state’s requirements for electoral district mapping, District 25 may need to take on a new county or part of a county in 2012 to make up for lost population. Photo by Willy Cook

The difficult 2011 legislative session is behind them, but District 25's legislators warn that the battle over some controversial bills is far from over.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, and Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, gathered with almost 20 voters at Oak Street Foods in Bellevue on Saturday to discuss the fallout from the 2011 session.

Many voters—and even the legislators—seemed to still be reeling from the bills passed earlier this year, including state schools Superintendent Tom Luna's education reform package.

"We do live in an island here in Blaine County," Jaquet said, referring to the county's tendency to vote Democrat while the majority of the state is staunchly Republican. "We forget that legislation is being passed for which there is apparently a great deal of support."

The legislation she was referring to included Luna's education reforms, for which there was extensive legislative support even though, Pence said, about 95 percent of the voters who testified about the bills in the House and Senate committees were against them.

"It was overwhelming, but it didn't seem to matter," she said.

The bills limited collective bargaining rights for teachers and instituted a merit pay system while cutting teacher salary apportionment and using the savings to pay for computers.

Hailey resident Penfield Stroh said she worried about the sustainability of the plan, as the computers given to students would likely be obsolete within a few years.

"[The schools] will have lousy computers and no teachers," Stroh said.

Jaquet said she agreed, adding, "I've had the same computer for four years and it's starting to talk back to me."

Pence said she was most concerned about the effects of teacher loss on smaller districts, where losing one teacher has a larger effect than it would on a larger school. Pence said that in a smaller rural school, the teacher lost may have taught all of the science classes, plus coached a sports team or two.

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"They don't have any wiggle room," she said.

Jaquet said Luna's assertion that the reforms would bring Idaho schools into the 21st century was wrong, as Idaho schools are not as far behind as he believes.

"We can always do better in every single thing we do," she said. "But to say we aren't in the 21st century was really negative."

Education issues could get even more complicated next session if the budget stabilization levy-elimination bill resurfaces. The bill was introduced by Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, in February and would require voters to approve a $29.5 million levy for school funding every three years. Currently, the Blaine County School District collects this on a permanent property tax levy, in place of accepting state funding. The levy makes up 53 percent of the district's general fund.

Lobbyists such as Idaho Association of School Administrators spokesman Phil Homer as well as Jaquet managed to kill the bill in a Senate committee this session, but Jaquet said she expects the bill will be back in 2012.

"It's going to be really hard to kill the bill this next time," she said. "We'll try our darndest, but I don't think we'll be able to do it."

The legislators also expressed concern over the upcoming issue of electoral redistricting.

"They're going to change what our Legislature looks like," Stennett said.

Idaho legislative districts must be redrawn every 10 years to coincide with the release of census data.

Redistricting, in theory, keeps the districts statewide equal in their number of voters. Stennett said each district should have about 46,000 voters. Since District 25—which includes Blaine, Camas, Gooding and Lincoln counties—has only 40,000, Stennett said, it's likely it will need to add a full or partial county to its rolls.

"We're not sure what that's going to look like," she said.

A bipartisan commission will meet for 90 days starting in June to draw the new districts, but Stennett said the new map would likely be settled in the courts, as it was during the state's last redistricting in 2001. Voters can contribute to the process by drawing their own district maps on the state's website, www.legislature.idaho.gov/redistricting/maptitude.htm.

Jaquet said that the changed electoral districts might help give Democrats better representation in the Legislature. However, she said it was more likely that the Senate, which has traditionally been the more moderate of the two bodies, will begin to lean even more to the right.

"Unless something incredible happens, we'll see a more conservative Senate," she said.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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