Idaho lawmakers reach deal on $1.3 billion education budget

BOISE, Idaho (AP) Lawmakers reached a deal on a $1.3 billion public schools budget, clearing the way for the session to adjourn Thursday by agreeing to a 2014 spending plan with only modest changes from the one that failed on the Senate floor last week.

This new budget includes only minor tweaks to the original plan that lost out on an 18-17 vote. Those include adding several new conditions to two disputed funding measures, up to $21 million in teacher merit pay and $3 million in funding for pilot technology projects, contained within the package.

In addition, there's now a public hearing on the bill planned for Wednesday, a concession to members of the Senate Education Committee including its Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, and Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, who had argued the previous version written by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee deviated from simply setting spending into setting policy.

Patrick said he's not completely happy with the outcome, but he is satisfied his panel's authority has been restored.

"The problem was, JFAC doesn't set policy, they set spending," he said, adding, "It's an improvement. It's not what I wanted."

The new budget seeks to tighten up conditions in which merit pay will be awarded, by attempting to tie disbursal of the $21 million more closely to objective measures like student achievement.

As for new limits on the $3 million in pilot projects, grants will be awarded on a competitive basis for projects designed to last only one to two years; what's more, the cash will have to go to projects in multiple school districts, a condition added on fear that just a single district could apply for all of the money.

Some of the senators who helped kill the previous bill argue this new spending plan has many of the old one's problems: Dedicating too much state money to teacher salaries, rather than helping fund districts' other necessary costs.

In addition to the merit pay bonuses, for instance, the plan directs another $12 million to restore Idaho's system of funding teacher salaries that underwent a recessionary freeze in 2010 and 2011.

But Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls and an Education Committee member, conceded Tuesday he was unable to cultivate sufficient support for broader changes he'd been seeking among key officials at the negotiating table.

They included House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.

Another Senate Education Committee member, Sen. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, was more frank in his disappointment and in his assessment of who came out on the losing end.

"The Senate got rolled," Thayn said.

However, Idaho School Board Association Executive Director Karen Echeverria was pleased with the bill's final version, and Goedde said he had commitments from the Idaho Education Association teachers union to support the plan, as well.

Speaking to reporters, Luna said he listened to concerns of Mortimer and Thayn about redirecting salary money for discretionary spending like school operations, energy costs and insurance.

But in the end, Luna said, there just wasn't support for wholesale changes of the variety they wanted, pointing out the previous budget had a 15-5 vote in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and a relatively easy 52-16 passage in the House.