It was a quiet start to the 2018 legislative session.
This isn’t unusual for the first week, with the exception of 2017 when one legislator gave us all a taste of what we were in for that session with her bawdy comment about the “only way women get ahead” in the Idaho Legislature.
Perhaps the staid tone of this year’s opening week is a good sign of a more productive legislative year.
Once more, with feeling
In fact, the first piece of legislation introduced in 2018 was a straight-up resurrection of a 2017 bill. On Jan. 9, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, introduced a bill to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee that could lower the unemployment tax for employers. A practically identical bill in 2017 went through an evisceration in the Senate during last year’s tax cut battle that pretty much left only its assigned number intact. It failed to clear the House a second time on the final day of the session.
If passed this year, the bill would cut base rates for the unemployment insurance tax, restoring rates back to pre-Great Recession levels and saving employers $115 million over the next three years. It raced through, clearing its committee on a unanimous vote.
The 2018 legislative session opened Monday with Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s final State of the State speech.
A third of the governor’s speech eloquently detailed his committment to education in his final budget. He pledged $41.7 million in fiscal year 2019 to the fourth year of the Career Ladder, threw $6.5 million more to literacy intervention on top of the funds pledged to early literacy for kindergarten through third grade, gave $5 million for college and career advising, $10 million more — totalling $36 million — for classroom modernization and his budget allotted, as promised, $5 million to help fund the newly-minted College of Eastern Idaho.
In the end, though, educators and education advocates were left feeling like Otter didn’t put his money where his mouth is.
Unlike most other education budget items, discretionary funds aren’t ear-marked for any particular spending purpose. Schools funnel their poritions toward the areas they see as the biggest needs in each individual district — everything from books and supplies to janitorial services and transportation. Most importantly, many districts have used the funds to help pay for annual increases in health care costs rather than passing them on to teachers, administration and staff.
Jon Hanian, Otter’s spokesman, said the governor chose not to add more funds to discretionary spending without first seeing the updated funding formula currently in the works. It’s not expected for another year.
Though Otter’s budget is just a starting point, many administrators, locally at least, feel the exclusion of an increase of discretionary funds is a slap in the face from a governor who has vowed to make education his top priority in his final year as leader of the state government.
“There were districts from all over the state that commented on how insurance had eroded some of the buying power we had. I felt like they had a commitment to make sure we didn’t lose buying power with our operational funding,” said Carrie Smith, director of human resource and finance for Idaho Falls District 91.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — why would Otter fail to invest this relatively affordable “bonus” to schools, then simultaneously tout his aggression toward education progressivism? If the career ladder is meant to make Idaho more competitive in the national rankings on teacher pay, why expect inflated health insurance costs to come out of teachers’ pockets?
Another suprise was that Otter didn’t include in his final budget proposal $27.5 million of the state’s surplus for Idaho Transportation Department projects. This budget item was supposed to be part of the Legislature’s “surplus eliminator” that splits surplus tax income between ITD and the state’s “rainy day fund.”
Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Co-Chairman Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint pointed out that the Legislature had passed a bill committing the money to ITD’s account and Idaho’s roads. “So we’ll have to account for that someplace else. And so what does that mean? That’s $27 million that has to come from somewhere.”
Other notable happenings: Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, the governor’s choice to replace former Rep. Janet Trujillo, was sworn in last Tuesday in Boise and assigned to the Education, Environment, Energy and Technology and the Judiciary, Rules and Administration committees.
Katie Stokes is the Commentary editor. Email her at email@example.com.