The 2015 session of the Idaho legislature ended in the early hours of the morning on April 11th. This year's session had several high points as well as some lows, but all in all a lot of great work was done for the people of Idaho. While some unanticipated challenges left it with a grade of "Incomplete," I believe the 2015 session should be remembered for nailing down a historic five year plan that will result in better schools, better paid teachers, and our first installment towards paying for Idaho's transportation needs.
If I could give any area of the session an "A" for a letter grade it would be education. We continued making sustainable, responsible investments in our public schools and in the educators on whom our children rely. Starting this year Idaho will have a "Career Ladder" plan for improving public school teacher pay, allocating $33.5 million for the first year of a five-year plan that includes establishing clear expectations and rewarding excellence in the classroom. The new money is in addition to the annual appropriation of $16 million for educator leadership premiums implemented last year.
We will also be restoring $24.8 million in discretionary operational funding to public schools as part of a five-year plan approved in 2014 to restore that funding to fiscal 2009 levels. The new money is in addition to $38.6 million appropriated last year, leaving $30.7 million more to reach FY 2009 levels.
Our state will also provide $9.4 million for teacher professional development, $5 million for classroom technology, $5.4 million for such "Advanced Opportunities" as dual credit programs, advanced placement exams and professional-technical programs; $2 million for statewide Wi-Fi services to all Idaho public high schools, and funding to achieve other recommendations from the Governor's Task Force on Improving Education.
A STEM Action Center will be created in my office to improve the focus throughout Idaho's education system on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
The $8.4 million that was cut during the Great Recession from K-12 facilities funding and Safe and Drug Free Schools funding will be restored, which will represent the final installment in a three-year restoration plan.
In regards to higher education more than $2 million will be allocated to Idaho's four-year college and universities and more than $1.2 million to community colleges for the Complete College Idaho program, aimed at improving the "K-through-Career" education pipeline by helping prepare Idaho's workforce for higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs. We will also be investing $1 million to higher education institutions statewide for the Advanced Manufacturing Initiative expanding opportunities for professional-technical education.
There will be funding for ten seats authorized over the previous two legislative sessions for Idaho students to study at the University of Washington medical school as part of the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho) compact. The Legislature also provided funding for five additional WWAMI seats, bringing the number of Idaho's first-year WWAMI medical school seats to 35 next fall. That means Idaho soon will have 140 medical students studying through the WWAMI program - up from 80 just three years ago.
I believe that we saw some good work this year in regards to transportation. We had a breakthrough after years of effort to create a framework for meeting our long-term transportation revenue requirements. However we know that this year's installment is just a down payment on what most agree are our long term transportation infrastructure requirements. That is why I give this year's transportation grade an "Incomplete."
But what the money we did raise allows us to do is increase the funds available for work on a growing backlog of maintenance and improvement projects on Idaho's roads and bridges. Idaho's 25-cents-per-gallon fuel tax - untouched since 1996 - will increase to 32 cents per gallon on July 1. Along with vehicle registration increases and a "surplus eliminator" plan for transferring half of any General Fund balances at the end of each fiscal year to the Idaho Transportation Department, House Bill 312 figures to raise about $95 million a year toward reducing the highway and bridge work backlog and opens the door to continuing discussion about sustainable, long-term funding.
Health Crisis Center
Allocating funding for a Behavioral Health Community Crisis Center was one of our greatest highlights of the 2014 session, and we are following suit this year with funding for a second of three eventual centers. Our first center, located in eastern Idaho is already proving to be a smart investment and is saving taxpayers money. As a result of this year's legislation, we are allocating $1.7 million for the second Behavioral Health Community Crisis Center that will be located in northern Idaho.
|Governor Otter cutting the ribbon of the first Health Crisis Center in December.
We will be providing another $1.7 million for the Opportunity Fund, an Idaho Department of Commerce economic development program that provides targeted grants to support expansion of existing Idaho businesses and recruit new companies providing better jobs for Idaho citizens. Opportunity Fund grants are performance based and pay for infrastructure and other public costs related to job creation.
We also passed a balanced budget that reflects our commitment to keeping government's growth below the growth of our economy. Almost $57.7 million will be deposited to the State's Budget Stabilization Fund and $21.5 million to the Public Education Stabilization Fund. These are our "rainy day" accounts that are used in the event of a future economic downturn impacting State revenues.
All of Idaho's open government-related laws will be consolidated under a new title in Idaho Code called "Transparency and Ethics in Government." The goal is to make it as easy as possible for citizens to follow the workings of State government and to hold public officials accountable.
All in all there is still some unfinished business left following the end of this year's session. However I see a lot of real, tangible and lasting progress for the citizens of Idaho. We have a lot of work ahead of us this year, but I believe we have good plan forward and are already aware of what more we can do when next year's session begins.