Printed on: April 01, 2013

Grand bargain turns to debacle for Idaho lawmakers

JOHN MILLER
Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - What was supposed to have been a grand bargain for Idaho public schools has become a grand debacle, extending the 2013 legislative session indefinitely as opposing sides try to patch together the $1.3 billion education budget.

The Senate last week rejected the appropriations bill 18-17, a narrow defeat for a measure viewed as a compromise that had the backing of Idaho's public schools chief, school boards and the Idaho teachers union. But it fell apart after Senate opponents charged the Joint Finance-Appropriations budget committee with not properly consulting with the Senate Education Committee about how key slices of the money were to be spent.

Some of the education panel's members disliked a pay for performance plan; others objected to restoring Idaho's system of funding teacher pay.

Now, Sen. Dean Cameron, the Rupert Republican who co-chairs the budget committee, said the House and Senate education committees should be given the chance to formally weigh in on provisions guiding how the education budget will be rewritten - but without radical departure from the existing plan.

Major changes, he insists, would destroy the balance he thought had been struck with all sides: outside education groups, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and lawmakers.

"If you start pulling pieces out of it," Cameron said, "you're going to unravel the grand bargain."

The plan included a handful of new and familiar ideas that gave key senators enough reason to vote against it Wednesday, including:

- About $21 million for merit pay bonuses to teachers to be awarded by districts, an idea dear to Luna and House Education Chairman Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle.

- Another $12 million for a critical Idaho Education Association goal of restoring a recession-driven freeze to the system Idaho uses to set teachers' base salaries.

- About $13.4 million for technology, $3 million of which was designated for pilot projects, to be awarded competitively to schools experimenting with classroom technology.

But Senate Education Committee members including its chairman, Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, and vice chairman, Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, took offense to the proposal. They accuse the budget committee - and Cameron, in particular - of using their budget-setting power to encroach into the education policy arena. A majority of senators sided with them Wednesday during the budget vote.

Goedde and Mortimer say the pilot project and merit pay ideas were never adequately vetted by the education committees and never saw scrutiny in public hearings. Some worry a slice of the $3 million for pilot projects is bound for a technology initiative at a school in Cameron's district, Paul Elementary, though he insists he'll have nothing to do with how the cash would be divvied up.

Mortimer also doesn't like the $12 million directed toward restoring teachers' base salaries. He said that's cash best directed toward so-called "discretionary spending" - money that school districts can use for pressing issues like paying escalating insurance premiums - or to keep the lights on and heat their buildings.

"All that money is going into salaries and benefits," Mortimer said. "It really ties (districts) hands."

Another Senate Education Committee member, Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, wants to axe the $21 million for merit pay. Voters spoke in November by dumping Students Come First's merit pay provisions, Patrick said, so now isn't the time to resurrect the idea.

"I believe in pay for performance," he said. "But I don't want to just force it out there and not have hearings on it."

Efforts to come up with a solution in the wake of the budget's defeat failed. Committee meetings initially planned for Monday were scrubbed. Frantic scurrying between education department offices and the Capitol by lawmakers has, at least so far, been for naught.

"The logjam hasn't been broken yet," DeMordaunt said Friday as legislators exited to head home for the weekend.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, concedes finding another compromise could keep lawmakers in Boise a good share of the week.

But legislative leaders also are bracing for some tough discussions. House leaders don't want to see those provisions stricken. Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, points out the budget passed his chamber on a relatively easy 52-16 vote. He also said adding ideas to dump the $21 million for merit pay or the $3 million pilot projects are nonstarters in his chamber.

"The clear path forward is to have a very similar budget," Bedke said.