BOISE | Education was the major focus of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's State of the State speech and of the budget proposal he released Monday.
Otter spent more than half of his yearly session-starting address to lawmakers on education, calling for a 7.9 percent increase in public school spending. Teacher pay would go up by almost $40 million as the state implements the second year of the five-year “career ladder” plan. Discretionary funding would go from $23,868 per classroom to $25,696, a $30 million increase overall that would bring it back to 2009 levels, before the recession prompted lawmakers to make deep cuts to education spending.
"We made promises during the Great Recession that we are duty-bound to fulfill," Otter said. "We have priorities for Idaho's future that require world-class K-through-12 schools and an advanced, responsive post-secondary education system. And now, we have the financial means."
The budget proposal also emphasizes higher education, increasing spending on community colleges by 9.6 percent and on the state's four-year colleges by 8.8 percent.
Otter is also proposing $10 million for a “tuition lock” to cap tuition for students at public universities who keep their grades high enough and graduate on time.
Overall, Otter is proposing a 7.3 percent increase in spending in the state's general fund, to $3.29 billion. As well as the big increase in education funding, Otter's staff said an extra pay period this year — 27 instead of 26 — adds a roughly $20 million one-time expense to the budget.
At a news conference after the speech, Otter defended the spending hikes, saying the dollars add up even if the percentages might seem high.
"We've got more revenue than we have spending," he said.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little said it made sense for Otter to spend more than 60 percent of his speech on education, given that the state spends 63 percent of its budget on education.
"I guess you could say the speech is following the money," he said.
Democrats said Otter's proposals don't go far enough.
"We cannot compete in today's economy if we're still trying to catch up with 2009," Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum said.
Only briefly mentioned in Otter's speech was a $30 million proposal to expand primary care coverage to people in the "Medicaid gap." Otter said he gave it short shrift in the speech because he covered the topic extensively at an Associated Press meeting previewing the session last week.
Otter's budget includes funding for the Primary Care Access Program he announced last week, shifting existing cigarette and tobacco tax revenues to cover it. In his State of the State speech, Otter briefly addressed ideas to increase the number of primary care doctors in the state and praised Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong and Health and Welfare committee chairmen Fred Wood, R-Burley, and Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, for their work on the PCAP proposal.
"I look forward to our discussions on that option," Otter said.
The Democrats said "Ottercare," as Assistant House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, dubbed it, is more expensive than Medicaid expansion and would provide worse coverage — it covers doctors' visits, but not hospitalizations, prescriptions or other medical needs. Erpelding said the Democrats plan to propose a full Medicaid redesign bill.
Similarly, spokespeople for the pro-Medicaid expansion group Close the Gap Idaho said the plan, while a step in the right direction and a good conversation starter, leaves far too many medical needs uncovered compared with the Healthy Idaho plan Otter's Medicaid Redesign Workgroup came up with.
"This can't be the total solution," said Ted Epperly, the CEO of Family Medicine Residency of Idaho.
Medicaid expansion proposals have gone nowhere in the Legislature in past years, though. If a plan to extend some coverage to the uninsured is going to pass, Little said, it would have to be a state-designed solution.
"I think it reflects the political reality," Little said.
One thing Otter's budget doesn't include is money for tax cuts. Rep. Steve Hartgen, a Republican from Twin Falls, said he was disappointed Otter didn't mention cutting taxes in his speech, especially given the state's revenue surpluses this year.
"I think it's time to reduce taxes," Hartgen said.
Overall, though, Hartgen said, he liked the general thinking he heard in Otter's speech, such as the education funding increases.
"Those are things that have been needed for a long time," he said.
Otter's budget proposal includes $1.72 million for a community crisis center that would be opened in southern Idaho, possibly in the Magic Valley.
Otter also praised House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and the others who helped to hammer out the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer water deal last year between the Surface Water Coalition and groundwater users, and encouraged others who are at odds over apportioning scarce resources to use it as a template.
Erpelding and Stennett said the Democrats' goals this session would include raising the minimum wage, creating an Office of Inspector General to review corruption complaints, and legislation requiring regular review of tax exemptions to determine if they are still serving their purpose.