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Saying that "Public schools are our highest priority," the Idaho Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) took official steps today to protect the education budget in the 2009 fiscal year from the budget holdbacks required of other Idaho state agencies. Technically referred to as making sure the budget is "held harmless," the step moved $56 million from the public education stabilization fund, as well as $5 million from another rainy day fund, into the general fund, for use by public education. The motion also clarified some discussion from yesterday regarding a math initiative that had enabled JFAC Co-Chair Senator Dean Cameron (R-Rupert) to twist the knife further regarding Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter's criticism of the Legislature regarding its "sneaky" budgeting of laptops.

Budget Committee Officially Protects 2009 Schools Budget

Saying that “Public schools are our highest priority,” the Idaho Legislature’ Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) took official steps today to protect the education budget in the 2009 fiscal year from the budget holdbacks required of other Idaho state agencies.

Technically referred to as making sure the budget is “held harmless,” the step moved $56 million from the public education stabilization fund, as well as $5 million from another rainy day fund, into the general fund, for use by public education.

While Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter had described this step months ago when it first became clear that state revenues were insufficient, it is not official until the Legislature approves it, because the Executive Order Otter used to set it up expires at the end of this month, said JFAC Co-Chair Senator Dean Cameron (R-Rupert). JFAC’s motion is the first step; it now carries a do-pass recommendation to the House and Senate chambers of the Legislature, each of which must also approve it.

The motion also clarified some discussion from yesterday regarding a math initiative that had enabled Cameron to twist the knife further regarding Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s criticism of the Legislature regarding its “sneaky” budgeting of laptops.

On Tuesday, Wayne Hammon, administrator of the Division of Financial Management, the Governor’s budgeting staff, had relayed a message from the Governor saying that the Legislature had “sneaked” funding for laptop support into its budget for 2010, by including it as a base adjustment rather than a new item, after Otter had vetoed money for the purchase and support of the laptops in the 2009 budget, in retaliation for the Legislature not voting for something Otter wanted during the 2008 legislative session.

On Wednesday, during discussion about how various agencies were dealing with recission — the formal name for the 4% holdback Otter had ordered for most agencies — it was not clear whether a math initiative funded in the 2008 legislative session that was intended to improve Idaho students’ performance in the subject had actually started. The public education department had listed some ways in which it was saving money in budgets, and had included some unspent funds from the math initiative as well as an overall reduction in the budget, leaving some question whether the total amount needed was $56 million or $60 million, because the math initiative was $4 million.

In other words, it was possible that the public education budget had counted the $4 million twice in terms of the money it would need in order to be “held harmless.” “One might call it a ‘sleight of hand.’. Or ‘sneaky,’ said Cameron, using terms that Hammon had used regarding the laptop issue. “Or ‘underhanded,'” added Cameron, drawing the response from Hammon, who was in the room, “I never said ‘underhanded.'”

Today, Cameron reported that the committee members had each received an email message from Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna noting that the math initiative had indeed started and would need to be funded, so the $4 million was included in the motion.

Incidentally, Otter will be apologizing for the remark in Idaho Public Television’s Idaho Reports, a weekly news program focused on the Legislature, when it airs on Friday. In fact, after the apology was alluded to during Wednesday’s annual City Club “Legislative Pundit” session, the program took the unusual step of putting the clip with Otter’s apology on its website. Hopefully, this will put the whole “laptopgate” issue to rest for the remainder of the session.

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