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Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna is either being played, or he's one of the most skillful dissemblers in Idaho. Two weeks after practically bringing tears to the eyes of members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee for his care in cutting the education budget to spare teachers, his same budget is being used as a reason to eviscerate them. The carefully choreographed effort – both Education Committee chairs and the heads of each of the houses have already signaled their intentions to play ball, and suggesting that everyone fall in line, by co-sponsoring the bill -- appeared to catch Democratic legislators, as well as educators, completely by surprise.

Republicans Spring Education Bills on Democrats, Teachers

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna is either being played, or he’s one of the most skillful dissemblers in Idaho. Two weeks after practically bringing tears to the eyes of members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee for his care in cutting the education budget to spare teachers, his same budget is being used as a reason to eviscerate them.

House Bills 117 and 118 were sponsored by House Education Chair Representative Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, and co-sponsored by Senate Education Chair Senator John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and President Pro Tem of the Senate Robert Geddes, R-Soda Springs.

HB 117 makes a number of cuts in teacher salaries and contract provisions that go far beyond those described by Luna in his presentation to JFAC. HB 118 makes a number of cuts in transportation, including the elimination of state funding for field trips, changing the calculation of transportation in a way that adversely affects Boise and other Idaho cities, cutting transportation reimbursement, and cutting transportation for charter schools.

The carefully choreographed effort – both Education Committee chairs and the heads of each of the houses have already signaled their intentions to play ball, and suggesting that everyone fall in line, by co-sponsoring the bill — appeared to catch Democratic legislators, as well as educators, completely by surprise. Both bills passed the House Education Committee on an 11-5 vote, suggesting that it fell across party lines, since there are five Democrats on the committee and all of them quoted in the press were angry.

“I’m really surprised the superintendent and the House education chairman would take this approach,” said House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello. “What they’re going to get right now is a fight on this.”

“it appears to me from this [bill] that the sacrifices are being made by the teachers,” said Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston.

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, the teachers’ union, said she was outraged and angry, and expected other teachers to feel the same way.

Last year, Luna tried some of this same union-busting using a carrot: Raises for teachers who agreed to “professional contracts” (a naming convention worthy of the Bush Administration’s “Blue Sky Act,” which actually increased pollution) that removed them from union protection. At the time, it was said that some legislators would only agree to salary increases if the protections were removed.

Since that bill failed last year, this year, they’re trying the stick.

The code word for the bill appears to be “flexibility,” in that it is intended to give superintendents the maximum “flexibility” in dealing with the economic situation. Similarly, it was made permanent rather than temporary because no one knows how long the current economic situation will last, Nonini said.

What is not clear is the extent to which Luna is involved. While he did tell JFAC that legislation would be required to implement some of the cost-saving ideas he proposed, he also said his office was writing the legislation. Yet, no one in Luna’s office is listed as a contact on either of the bills. In addition, in Betsy Russell’s Eye on Boise Spokane Spokesman-Review blog last week, Luna’s legislative plans were characterized as temporary, while it was Nonini who said legislation might make the changes permanent.

On the other hand, according to Brian Murphy’s article in the Statesman, “Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna is not a co-sponsor of the legislation, but a spokeswoman said these bills are necessary to implement Luna’s plan to cut education spending during the economic crisis.”

So did Luna lose a battle? Or was he the “good cop”?

Interestingly, neither Denney nor Geddes appeared to mention the upcoming legislation during a Press Club event, though they were asked about education, saying only that public education budgets were likely to be cut.

There may also be pushback from JFAC, which does its best to draw a line between defining policy – which it sees as the job of the germane committees such as Education – and paying for it, but which also treated Luna gently during his hearing due to his apparent concern for the teachers. JFAC co-vice-chair Senator Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint expressed her disapproval of the bills. “It looks as though a sledgehammer was used when a scalpel was needed,” she said. “Today’s developments are distressing.”

Fortunately for opponents, the Education Committee is considered a “privileged” committee, meaning that legislators can continue to submit bills to the committee. For committees that are not privileged, the deadline for submitting legislation is Friday. However, with the two bills having the blessing of the committee chairs and the heads of the respective houses, will any other bills even be able to be heard? Denney has already stymied any attempts at a local option taxing authority bill by preventing Revenue and Taxation Committee chair Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, from hearing any bill that doesn’t include a constitutional amendment. It is entirely possible that no alternatives to the two education bills will be allowed – which means Republicans will have to decide whether to buck the Speaker and President Pro Tem to vote against them.

Perhaps the plan is to compromise by including a “sunset” provision that would end the law, or part of it, after a certain period of time, and making the first round of the law permanent was to make legislators more amenable to any hint of sunsetting. It will be interesting to watch how the legislation changes as it moves through the two houses.

Hearings for the two bills are scheduled for three days beginning Monday.

About Sharon Fisher

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2 comments

  1. Excellent write up Sharon.

  2. Yes the writing was great, but the cutting of the teachers’ salaries is abhorent to me. The teachers are, many times, the Mother or Father they don’t have at home and need the money, too, to buy the pencils, pens, paper that the schools will not buy or don’t have the funds for.

    Every time any budget is cut it is where it least can afford it. An education is what makes the wheels of progress roll. Without an education most of the welfare recipients are with little education and little hope for any kind of progress toward an independant life.

    I cannot see where any community will ever advance with out the proper tools. And education is part and parcel of the tools needed. Cut the salaries of the state legislature and executive branch they need the cuts not teachers they do the real work.