Questions arise over a $34 million education item in governor’s budget
Gov. Butch Otter has said he’s not expecting big changes for education policy during this current legislative session. But buried inside the details of his proposed state budget is nearly $34 million to be distributed according to the recommendations of his education reform task force.
“The task force has no authority to spend money,” Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, told IdahoReporter.com about the governor’s task force that Otter and the Idaho Department of Education have assembled to advise him and the Legislature on possible future education policies in the state.
Thayn is a member of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), which oversees budgetary requests and proposals for the various divisions of government. He says that “any recommendations that the task force makes would have to be ratified by legislative action.”
Yet, despite the fact that the task force, alone, cannot decide to spend taxpayer funds, within the governor’s budget proposal is the following language:
“The Governor recommends $33,915,200 to reach a 2% General Fund increase over the FY 2013 Original Appropriation for Public School Support. The Governor recommends that this amount be distributed based on the purposeful and calculated deliberation of the Governor's stakeholder committee.”
The 31-person task force is comprised of people from a variety of professional fields, including K-12 education, colleges and universities, and the business community. “It’s a very broad and diverse group,” Otter press secretary Jon Hanian told IdahoReporter.com, “and the governor wants a broad range of recommendations.”
Yet, while budgeting money to be distributed based on the recommendations of the task force members, Otter has also announced that he’s not looking for education reforms in this legislative session. “Let me say it again,” the governor reiterated in his State of the State address on Jan. 7. “I am neither calling for nor expecting major school improvement measures this year. But I believe there are areas in which we can make progress, and I encourage you and all citizens to engage in that public discussion.”
So why would the governor say that he’s not expecting “major” school reform right now, yet at the same time seek to budget nearly $34million for reforms?
“For starters, it’s important to distinguish between the ‘for’ and the ‘by,’ in this scenario,” said Otter’s budget analyst, David Hahn. “The reforms that may be suggested by the stakeholder group have to be identified by 2014, yet they are not for the fiscal year 2014,” he told IdahoReporter.com.
But the governor’s budget is for fiscal year 2014 that begins July 1 of this year, and there has been confusion as to why he would budget for education reforms in a time period where he said he wasn’t looking for such reforms.
“The governor noted that he is not looking for ‘major’ reforms,” Hahn said. “There may very well be some minor issues and technical fixes that need funding in this legislative session. At the end of the day, the governor wanted to allow flexibility for the task force. It’s difficult to tell a group to come up with great new ideas, while telling them that they have no money to work with.”
Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, also a member of JFAC, suggests that the restoration of funding for high school students that are concurrently enrolled in college courses might be one of the smaller, “technical fixes” that the governor’s budget office is hinting at. “I would certainly support a proposal like that,” Bayer told IdahoReporter.com. Noting that concurrent enrollment can actually save the state money over time, Bayer nonetheless noted that “we can’t move forward with the status quo in education policy, and constructive education policy will be a prerequisite for these funds to be spent.”
Members of the Legislature will be receiving a lot more input on education budgeting issues later this week. On Thursday, Tom Luna, state superintendent of public schools, will present his budget proposals, and on Friday, the governor’s stakeholder task force will meet.