By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports
Backroom fights and posturing over how to fund Idaho’s education system found their way to the House floor last week and continued Monday. House Democrats joined with more conservative members of the Idaho Legislature to vote down the State Board of Education’s budget to signal their unhappiness with the rewriting of the state’s most key budget item: funding Idaho’s schools.
“If you want to exclude us from policymaking, then don’t expect us to vote for your budgets,” said House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding. “That is not congruent.”
A key tension? Democrats feel left out of important policy discussions.
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, a Boise Democrat, says she’s been a member of the drafting team to create the legislation since its inception nearly five years ago. She says she hasn’t been invited to any actual drafting meetings since December. Yet people have been writing possible proposals without her.
Ward-Engelking says she and Democrat Rep. John McCrostie – a fellow funding formula member – “were not invited to the meetings where the draft was finalized.”
“They are more concerned with their power than good, well-reasoned policy,” said Erpelding. The Democrats are looking at killing appropriations bill as a way to force themselves back into the conversation
“To punch when necessary,” said Erpelding. “But only punch to win.”
The Senate education chairman disagrees. “I can tell you that there haven’t been any discussions being had behind closed doors,” said Sen. Dean Mortimer, who oversees the education panel. “They’ve been open, so anyone that wanted to participate or know what was going on was welcome.”
GOP Rep. Wendy Horman, who is in charge of writing the education budget, emphasized no one was purposely left out and she has taken a backseat.
The funding formula proposal was turned over to the House and Senate education committee in a joint hearing in December, said Horman, who then added she stepped away from the process after co-chairing the interim funding formula committee.
Senate and House education leaders have held almost 20 hours of meetings with stakeholders and legislators. “If they’re saying we haven’t had any input,” said Mortimer. “I’m saying that’s not necessarily the fault of the of the environment that we’re we’re making this legislation in.”
“It wasn’t only Democrats who felt they were shut out of the funding formula drafting process,” Horman said. “Members of the House Education Committee have certainly spoken publicly about feeling excluded from the process.”
The Democrats and some of the House Education Committee members are not alone in raising concerns. Some of the stakeholders who attended the funding formula meetings also feel like they haven’t been heard.
There have been lengthy and productive public meetings, but the concern is that key conversations are happening in private.
“It’s a giant investment of time, and we’re the ones who have to implement it,” said Quinn Perry, lobbyist for the Idaho School Boards Association.
“The working group, in my opinion, has done what it needed to do,” said Mortimer. “That was talk about the major issues some of the differences of opinion and we covered all of that.”
Tensions have since been heightened when the House Education Committee started talking about a bill – which may or may not have actually existed – stakeholders say they knew nothing about.
Around the same time, that same panel also raised eyebrows from stakeholders and Democrats when it started drafting funding formula legislation of its own.
Legislative leadership directed Horman and Republican Sen. Lori Den Hartog to also draft their own funding formula version.
“It must have become clear to both House and Senate leadership this week that the process wasn’t working, and the Senate Education Chairman was directed by joint leadership to work on a draft on Wednesday evening,” said Den Hartog.” “I have assisted the Chairman with that.”
“Leadership agreed it was time to get a bill moving that honored the intent of the interim committee and incorporated stakeholder input,” said Horman. “(Den Hartog) and I got tasked with taking the interim committee’s version adding the stakeholder input and coming up with a draft.”
That was when Democrats and stakeholders started to object. “I said, what are you doing you’re going to blow the whole thing up, we cannot put something forward that doesn’t have stakeholder buy-in,” said Ward-Engelking. “It’s just not the right thing to do.”
“We’ve seen in the past what happens when stakeholders are not involved,” said Perry. “They’re not going to be calling legislators they’re going to be calling us.”
Critics of the process harken back to the Luna Law days, where in 2011 stakeholders also argued they were left out of important education policy decisions and eventually overturned the Legislature’s decisions through citizen initiatives.
“I think we’ll see a very similar situation that we saw with the Luna laws where people are going to say this isn’t right. You know you’re not talking to the people that are in the field, the people that are doing the day to day work with children and that’s whom people care about, we care about the children of Idaho,” said Ward-Engelking.
“My fear, if we don’t involve the stakeholders, is that it becomes a very political bill and we’re not looking out for the interests of our children here in Idaho,” she added.
A new funding formula, however, can only be created by the Legislature and the process is not even close to a conclusion. “It’s time now to let the legislative process happen,” said Mortimer. “Time for a bill to be brought, time for us to say yes this is what we want to do and not everyone may agree but if the majority agrees then that’s the way the legislative process works.”
People are still holding out hope despite the criticism and obstacles. “I believe a compromise could be reached on this,” said Horman. “I think we can get to a bill that takes into consideration the recommendations of the interim committee as modified by additional stakeholder input and we can get a compromise bill done this year.”
“I think we need to go back to the bill that the stakeholders have endorsed,” said Ward-Engelking. “That’s where we need to start and vote it up or down, and if they vote it down, we put this off and see what the governor’s task force can do to resolve this situation.”
Mortimer does not believe waiting until next year is an option. “It is not acceptable to me, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to a lot of people,” said Mortimer. “We’ve already worked on it three years… it needs to happen, and it’s our responsibility to educate those that haven’t been here so long. I think if we miss the opportunity to at least get the framework in place, then we miss a real opportunity.”
Even the stakeholders still have hope. “We are committed to continuing our work with the Legislature to craft language that will work for everyone,” said Perry “We will also continue our efforts to ensure the transition to a student-based formula will be as smooth as possible for our school districts and charter schools.”
In the end, though, hope doesn’t craft legislation. With a bill introduced and the killed in the House Education Committee today and a possible future bill in the Senate this week, we’ll have to wait and see what lawmakers, stakeholders and the people of Idaho can get behind.
Then keep an eye on Sen. C. Scott Grow’s ballot initiative bill, just in case this does end up like the Luna laws.