Legislative committee boosts Idaho education budget by 7.4 percent, adding $101 million

Markets Associated Press

Legislative budget writers are matching Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's request to restore public education money slashed during the economic downturn by adding roughly $101 million to the Idaho schools budget.

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The Joint Finance Appropriations Committee approved increasing the schools budget by 7.4 percent on Friday. The proposal now needs to survive both chambers, but the legislation is expected to pass.

The proposal includes allotting $33.5 million to boost teacher pay, part of a five-year teacher pay increase plan lawmakers approved earlier this week. This means beginning teacher pay will go up from $31,750 a year to $32,700 a year. The committee also approved giving $16.1 million in teacher bonuses.

"This has been a long work in process and it shows," said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the powerful budget committee.

Budget writers have been holding off from finalizing the schools budget — compiling roughly 50 percent of the state's general funds — for two weeks, waiting on the rest of the Idaho Legislature to finalize the expansive teacher pay bill.

Idaho lawmakers sliced education funding in 2009 during the economic downturn right after the legislature passed one of the highest education budgets in the state's history.

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Lawmakers have since promised to return education funding to previous levels, but have been wary of adding too much too soon.

The slow rebuild of the state's education budget has sparked criticism from the legislature's few Democratic members over the years.

For example, two Democratic budget committee members unsuccessfully attempted to pitch a 9.3 percent schools funding increase. The proposal contained more operational funding — money school districts have to use for their discretion.

In the plan passed Friday, districts would have $23,868 per support unit — roughly the size of one classroom — in discretionary funds. The alternative proposal called for $25,696 per support unit.

"This is go big or go home," said Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, countered that the schools budget now contains much more individual budget requests that used to be lumped as discretionary.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra praised the budget boost, albeit incorrectly identifying it as an "historic 7.5 percent increase" in a prepared statement.

"We appreciate the open lines of communication with members of JFAC, and members of the legislature," Ybarra said. "This demonstrates what can be accomplished for Idaho students when great ideas are coupled with an environment of collaboration."