Gov seeks 2.8 percent hike in ed funding; no pay raise for teachers

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said Monday he aims to boost spending on public schools by nearly 2.9 percent to $1.34 billion, though he won't set aside any cash for teacher pay raises.

The governor made the proposal in his fiscal year 2015 budget that would still leave public schools about $60 million short of the roughly $1.4 billion the state spent on the schools before the economic downturn that began in late 2007.

Schools lost about $83 million in operational funding in cuts made during the recession.

The biggest share of proposed new spending on K-12 schools - $35 million for the year starting next July - is meant to help districts pay for operations, including insurance and utilities.

Otter outlined his plan in his annual State of the State speech and also lauded members of a task force that came up with recommendations in 2012 to boost education with the goal of 60 percent of adults between 25 and 34 having a college degree or professional certification by 2020. The figure is now about 35 percent, according to state statistics.

"That goal - and our proposals for achieving it - have been enthusiastically embraced by the education community and employers," Otter told assembled House and Senate members, kicking off the 2014 Legislature.

"I'm sure some will argue that the proposals I'm putting forward today are not bold enough, not front-loaded enough or simply not enough," he said. "But peaks and valleys are not the best way to manage any enterprise - public or private. These proposed investments measured, manageable and within our means."

Otter has been under pressure from business groups to further cut the state's corporate and business equipment tax. Cuts during the past two sessions have totaled about $55 million. He has set aside $30 million for any proposals that emerge during the coming session but noted that any idea "must be in the context of advancing our goals for Idaho's education system."

For a second year, Otter used his speech to douse hopes of expanding eligibility in Idaho for the Medicaid health insurance program. President Barack Obama's health care overhaul envisioned adding many low-income singles, among others, to the program, but the U.S. Supreme Court left the decision up to states.

"My answer remains, not this year," Otter said.

Instead of taking additional federal money to cover the health insurance program for the poor, elderly and disabled, Otter wants to make changes to the system first. That includes focusing on prevention and outcomes rather than the existing system that he says concentrates too much on payments for services.

Otter did say he wants to develop three regional behavioral health centers - in Idaho Falls, Coeur d'Alene and Boise - to help address mental health issues.

Otter called for $2 million for a new Wolf Control Fund, something he sees as necessary to keep the number of predators in check. Idaho now has 680 wolves.

"We're managing them now, and they're a trophy hunting species," he said. "But the population is still growing, and our resources remain at risk."

Amid a drought, he wants to dedicate $15 million for water projects, including final studies on a proposed dam on western Idaho's Weiser River, as well as boosting water storage capacity in the Island Park Reservoir in eastern Idaho.

"It is a critical investment in our capacity for responsible future growth," he said.