- Associated Press - Monday, January 11, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter began outlining his budget and policy priorities for Idaho lawmakers during his State of the State address Monday afternoon, naming public education yet again as his primary focus for the year.

The annual speech kicks off the start of the legislative session, with lawmakers, members of the judiciary and other leaders gathered in the Idaho Statehouse to hear Otter’s remarks.

“We are entrusted with the singular constitutional responsibility of providing for a ‘general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools throughout Idaho,’” the Republican governor said. “Frankly, I’m convinced that we would see this as our highest priority, even if it wasn’t in our Constitution. So promoting and constantly improving education for the people of Idaho must be the foundation of our work together.”

Overall, Otter proposed a 7.9 percent increase - roughly a $116 million funding bump - to the state’s public education budget. That would bring the total to $1.59 billion. It’s the second year in a row that Otter has proposed steep hikes in education spending.

The increase includes about $38 million for the second installment in a five-year plan to increase teacher pay, plus an additional $1.8 million to move school nurses and other staffers onto the new higher pay system - which ties pay increases to certain measurements of student success.



Meanwhile, the total state budget proposal would be roughly 7.3 percent larger for fiscal year 2017, coming in at around $3.29 billion. The budget request is one of the biggest Otter has submitted over the past 10 years in office.

“It’s a great day for education in Idaho,” said Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra. “It is a great day for public education. He was adamant that education was going to be his top priority and he has proven that.”

Idaho’s Democratic legislative leaders criticized Otter’s education plan, however, arguing that the proposed increase is not enough to keep up with Idaho’s growth.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the state’s education policy would earn politicians and the governor an “incomplete” in a classroom.

“Twice in his speech today, the governor proposed getting us to 2009 levels or accomplishing 2009 goals, as if that were a laudable achievement.” Stennett said. “We cannot compete in today’s economy if we are still trying to catch up to 2009.”

House Minority Assistant Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, also vowed to introduce legislation to expand Medicaid and to raise minimum wage. Previous attempts to pass similar measures have failed in the Republican-dominated Statehouse.

The governor’s education focus also featured several new higher-education initiatives, such as creating a new program that would freeze college and university tuition for incoming freshman so they would pay the same rate for at least four academic years.

Otter says the program will provide financial predictability for students and families while also provide incentive to finish their higher education in four years.

At the same time, Otter said he wants $10 million in one-time funds for school programs focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and another $10 million for scholarships to encourage students to go to college or to return and finish their post-secondary degrees.

In total, the governor is proposing an 8.8 percent increase in spending for four-year colleges and universities and more than 9 percent funding increase for community colleges for fiscal year 2017.

“I just can’t emphasize enough how important improving our K-through-Career education system is to providing the tens of thousands of skilled workers we need to meet the increasingly technical demands of Idaho employers,” Otter said, calling the budget proposal an “investment in the future of all our citizens.”

Along with education, Otter also called for:

- $5 million in new spending to cover the recommendations made by a committee of lawmakers who studied how to reform Idaho’s public defense system over the summer. Though that committee is expected to meet later this week to nail down the details of its recommendations, its members are considering one option that would give counties that agree to meet certain public defense standards either a 15 percent boost to their public defense budget or $25,000.

- $2 million to go to the state’s Constitutional Defense Fund, which has been depleted over the years after paying legal fees and attorney costs in failed lawsuits Idaho has faced against the federal government.

- $1.7 million for a third behavioral health community crisis center. The centers seek to help residents with mental illness who would otherwise face jail, emergency room treatment or other expensive interventions that often don’t provide effective or ongoing help. Two are currently operating in Idaho Falls and Coeur d’Alene.

- $920,000 to increase the Idaho Department of Land’s initial response to suppressing wildfires.

___

Associated Press writer Kathryn Haake contributed to this report.

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