Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lawmakers expect battles in 2012

Education, budget likely to drive legislative session


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

A school funding bill that local lawmakers hoped would die for good during the last Idaho legislative session is likely to rear its head again after the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 9, potentially leaving the Blaine County School District with a $29.5 million annual loss.

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Reps. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, and Donna Pence, D-Gooding, said earlier this month that they expect to see a bill this session that would eliminate a permanent budget stabilization levy for four school districts statewide, including Blaine County.

"We got the word it's definitely coming," Pence said. "We were hoping we could get a little more time for preparation on it, rather than having [the funding] shut off all at once."

Currently, state law allows the district to collect $29.5 million each year through a permanent levy on county property taxes. That makes up about 60 percent of the district's operating budget. A bill introduced last year would have required the district to ask for voter approval of this levy every two years, as it does for supplemental levies.

The bill was killed in the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee, thanks to then committee Chair Sen. Joe Stenger (R-Lewiston), who held the bill. Pence said the decision was due partially to the economy, and Jaquet said Blaine County schools may not be so lucky this year.

"The person who helped fight it is gone," she said, as Stenger has been appointed as a lobbyist for the University of Idaho.

Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, will replace him as chair of the committee, which Stennett said did not bode well for local schools.

"It barely did not come out of committee last time," she said.

The levy was granted in 2006, when then Gov. James Risch and the Legislature shifted funding for state schools from property taxes to state sales and income tax as part of the state's Property Tax Relief Act.

Blaine and three other districts were exempted from the act because they were not receiving state funding at the time and the state could not afford to reimburse the amount that district residents had approved.

Blaine County School District Superintendent Lonnie Barber said earlier this year that if the bill went through and voters did not pass the levy, staffing would bear the brunt of the loss. The district's 2011 budget allots $41 million for staffing, with $29.5 million for salaries alone.

Stennett said the fact that 2012 is an election year will likely result in legislators' bringing up issues that tend to be decided along party lines, possibly even more than last year. She said those are likely to include gun control and immigration, but declined to name other specific topics.

"I don't want to say—I don't want to give anyone any ideas!" she said.

Pence said she thought the Legislature would see more tax opposition and possibly more legislation like the three nullification bills that came before the House and Senate last year that sought to nullify President Barack Obama's health-care bills in Idaho.

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"There are still some of those issues that will be contentious," she said. "It will be contentious as far as federal government and states' rights. But I hope [the Legislature] will look at some of the court cases [ruling similar bills unconstitutional] and realize they need to be careful."

A significant portion of the 2012 legislative session may be spent dealing with the fallout from State Superintendent Tom Luna's education reform bills, which were passed against widespread public opposition last session.

The three bills increase technology in the classroom, require high school students to take two online classes before graduation, cut funding for teacher salaries while setting up a pay-for-performance system and limiting teachers' collective bargaining rights.

The financial plan for the reforms was that money saved by reducing the budget for teachers' salaries would pay for the laptops, tablet computers or other mobile computing devices that high school students would be given over the next few years. However, that model was developed when the requirement for online classes was set at eight, which may have allowed schools to cut teachers. Requiring only two classes to be taken online may not reduce the number of needed faculty, raising questions about how the technology should be funded.

"There has to be a readjustment on the money," Pence said. "There are going to be some major changes—hopefully."

Jaquet said benchmarks are crucial to measuring the success of the reforms, and she hoped to see stronger standards for how student performance in online classes and using new technology would be evaluated.

"We could say test scores would be up, or X [number of] students are doing this," she said.

Much of the legislation that will come out of the 2012 session will depend on available money. Legislative budget chief Cathy Holland-Smith told lawmakers last month that the state could end the 2011-12 budget year with a $130 million surplus. If that proves to be the case, local lawmakers said they would like to return some of that surplus to the Department of Health and Welfare's budget, which was cut by $34 million last year. About $108 million in Medicaid funding was cut last year as well.

"One of the big things I'm watching right now is the number of folks who are mentally ill and who are not getting the care they need," Jaquet said. "We need to work pretty hard at [returning] what was cut from Health and Welfare."

The Blaine County commissioners have stated they have seen an increase in costs from psychiatric holds at the Blaine County Public Safety Facility, an increase that Commissioner Tom Bowman said comes from state budget cuts.

Commissioner Angenie McCleary has also gone on record saying that since the Department of Health and Welfare office in Bellevue was closed due to budget constraints, there are many in Blaine County who are not getting the psychiatric care they need.

Stennett noted a rise in the state's suicide rate, which she said prompts concerns for the future.

"If we can't deal with the people we have now, what are we going to do when our troops come home?" she said. "We can't put our heads under a pillow and hope it goes away. It's not something we are prepared for at all."

Stennett, Pence and Jaquet all said they would like to see some of the surplus this year go back into Health and Welfare funding, but that building up that funding to pre-cut levels would likely take more time.

"What I hope [will happen] and what will are two different animals," Stennett said.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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