12 Aug Congress Passes Bill With $51 Million for Idaho Educators (ID)

August 12, 2010

By: Ben Botkin
Source: The Times-News

Idaho public schools appear poised to receive about $51 million in federal funding to help offset painful cuts made while dealing with state budget shortfalls.

The funding for Idaho is part of a $26 billion spending bill that the U.S. House of Representatives approved 247-161 Tuesday that includes $10 billion for schools nationwide. Approved by the U.S. Senate last week, the bill was also signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama.

The other $16 billion in the bill will extend by another six months the increased level of federal Medicaid funding that states began receiving through the 2009 federal stimulus act. The higher level of funding was due to expire at the end of December without the bill, which would have left Idaho with a $71 million shortfall in Medicaid funding for this fiscal year.

That shortfall is now $14 million instead, according to Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

In January, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter proposed dipping into Idaho’s 1998 tobacco settlement to offset any shortfall. Otter said he could use tobacco money to mitigate cuts elsewhere — if he didn’t need it for Medicaid.

For now, Idaho school districts and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna are waiting to find out more from the federal government before they’ll know what the money’s full, potential benefit for the state could be.

“I think there’s still a question as to what states have to do to qualify. Until we see what those specifics are, then we don’t know,” Luna said in an interview, adding that he’s “pretty confident that it’s going to work out.”

“I can’t imagine that now, it’s going to be distributed in a way that not every state is going to be able to participate,” he said. “We’re kind of in a wait-and-see mode.”

If it works out, preliminary details show that school districts would have up to 27 months to spend the money, a potential way for districts to save for shortages in the next fiscal year’s budget, Luna said. He added that he’ll need to know what strings are attached first.

Besides bringing back lost teacher jobs, Luna also said the funding could restore teacher aide positions and add classroom days that districts removed from school calendars during belt-tightening.

The added cash won’t restore all that’s been cut. The Legislature trimmed 7.5 percent — $128.5 million — from the public schools budget for this fiscal year.

On Tuesday, school districts were guarded in their enthusiasm and uncertain what to expect.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that it might mean that we could add some of our days back to our calendar that are furloughed,” said Wiley Dobbs, superintendent of Twin Falls School District.

Michele Capps, superintendent of Murtaugh School District, said the district doesn’t have a plan for dealing with the funding yet because its details are still unknown.

“I think any amount of money at this point will help,” she said. “It’s just hard to say how much it’s going to be.”

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Educ ation Association, said, “We’re very excited that we’ll be able to at least cover the costs of positions that were not filled. … Hopefully this will go a long way in helping our children.”

Idaho’s congressmen cast split votes on the bill. Republican Rep. Mike Simpson opposed it, calling it another example of irresponsible federal spending.

“The reality is that while Democrats are claiming the bill is paid for with tax increases and future spending cuts, the Congressional Budget Office has said that under Statutory Pay-Go, the bill increases the deficit by $12.6 billion over 10 years,” Simpson said in a statement. “That is simply unacceptable.”

Democrat Rep. Walt Minnick supported the bill, saying it’s a proactive way to provide “much-needed funding for Idaho without adding a penny to the national debt.”

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