READER COMMENT: IDAHO SCHOOLS, A NEW LEGACY OF POOR FUNDING

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Michael Ferguson opines:  Kudos to Governor Otter for his courageous embrace of his education task force’s recommendations. With an estimated price tag of approximately $350 million, those recommendations will go a long way toward restoring cuts that have been made to Idaho’s public schools over the past decade and a half.

During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Idaho spent approximately 4.4 percent of Idahoan’s total personal income each year on public schools. The yearly numbers varied a bit (ranging between 4.2-4.7 percent), but the overall funding trend was remarkably steady. However, since 2000, the level of funding for Idaho public schools (as a share of our total personal income) has fallen steadily from 4.4 percent to a new low of 3.5 percent in the fiscal year 2014 public school budget. That’s a 20 percent reduction.

To see the dollar magnitude of this reduced funding effort consider that in 2013 Idaho’s total personal income is estimated to be $55 billion. The nine-tenths of a percentage point reduction is equivalent to $495 million in 2013 terms. That’s right, if Idaho was spending the same share of its personal income on public schools today as it did in the three decades preceding the millennium, those schools would receive almost one-half billion dollars more in funding than they actually do today.

So the task force’s recommendations (now embraced by the governor) would re-store about two-thirds of the public school funding that has been cut since 2000. And as the governor points out, it may not be possible to fulfill the task force’s recommendations in one year, or even two, but it should be possible to implement them in four or five years. That’s not an unreasonable time frame considering the loss of funding took place over more than a dozen years.

Now that the governor has clearly and unequivocally embraced restoring a signify-cant amount of public school funding, he needs to produce a clear roadmap showing how he intends to achieve that outcome. He needs to produce a long-range Idaho budget scenario that shows the public realistic projections of not only public school spending over the next five years, but all major categories of state spending — such as higher education, health and human services, adult and juvenile corrections, and all the rest of state government programs.

Why does a complete long-range budget projection need to be produced? Quite simply, it’s the only way we’ll know if the governor is serious in his commitment to his task force’s recommendations. A complete budget projection will reveal the likely path of other important elements of Idaho’s budget. For example, health care related expenses are changing significantly as a result of Obamacare, and corrections related expenses are being impacted by judicial rulings, incarceration rates, etc.

Revenue forecasts must be extended as well, to show whether Idaho’s current revenue structure can meet the demands associated with providing a complete spectrum of public services, including the education enhancements the governor now embraces. Only by presenting a credible, complete budget scenario covering the full period of the phase-in will the public be in a position to assess the veracity of the governor’s commitment to Idaho’s public schools.

As an added bonus, Idaho is long overdue to extend its budgeting time horizon be-yond a single year. Lack of long-range budget planning in general is considered a weakness in any state’s fiscal management practices. Idaho has increasingly adopted policies that either delay or phase-in major policy initiatives, and without a sufficient time horizon it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully assess the consequences of delayed or phased-in implementations.

Michael Ferguson is the director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. He previously served as chief economist for the last six governors of Idaho.

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