Finding financial balance

BOISE — The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee heard public testimony on the state budget Friday and limited testimony to three minutes Friday.

After more than two hours of testimony, it was evident top subjects of budget concern are employee wages, education, Medicaid expansion and mental health funding.

Donna Yule, executive director of the Idaho Public Employees Association, was first to testify. Yule urged committee members to adopt the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy’s Responsible Alternative to the Executive Budget — a separate budget developed this year by longtime government economist Mike Ferguson. The alternative budget includes more funds set aside for education, as well as a guaranteed change in employee compensation every year that includes teachers.

The alternative budget is based on the same outline used by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s Executive Budget, but adjusts spending to reduce the amount of money set aside in the state’s rainy day funds and instead invests in state needs.

Yule said the alternative budget will finally give state employees and teachers the recognition and reward they deserve.

“For several years now, they’ve been told they’re important to the governor and to the legislature and every year their compensation falls farther and farther behind,” Yule said.

Yule said the 2 percent salary raise recommended by the Change in Compensation Committee in January doesn’t begin to bring Idaho’s living wages in line with average salaries of surrounding states. She said the 4 percent salary bump given to state employees in the alternative budget is necessary in hiring and retaining quality workers.

“I hope JFAC will give the alternative budget a very serious look,” Yule said. “Everyone in this building seems to give lip service to the idea that education and Medicaid and state employees are priorities — and yet the spending in these areas belies that notion.”

Frank Monasterio, representative of the Catholic Charities of Idaho also said legislators should give more attention to the alternative budget plan — especially in respect to allotting more state funds for Medicaid. He said the changes would bring increased support to those in poverty in Idaho and would allow for mentally ill individuals to receive medication at less cost.

“We see the struggles that hard working Idaho families face each year just to survive,” Monasterio said. “Too many of these struggles are because families cannot get affordable healthcare.”

Monasterio said one in five Idahoans lack any type of healthcare, nor do they have access to it. He said bringing Medicaid to the forefront of budget alignment would save lives and improve the standard of living for many.

“If Idaho would redesign our Medicaid system, we could prevent an estimated 590 deaths next year,” Montesterio said.

Laura Scuri, owner of Access Behavioral Health and member of the Mental Health Providers Association of Idaho, said previous budget cuts have severely scarred the ability to properly treat the state’s mentally ill.

“We’ve stripped our system bare,” Scuri said. “We have in front of us the amazing opportunity to restructure the delivery of behavioral health in Idaho … we need to do it right.”

Scuri said the state’s current system isn’t equipped with the ability to serve participants and patients with ranging needs — presenting a big problem for those currently receiving mental healthcare.

“We only address those who are significantly ill,” Scuri said. “It’s time to implement care that includes preventative services … for all of Idaho.”

Scuri also recommended that JFAC review the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy’s alternative budget. She said the budget plan allows for Idaho to invest more in education and health, while still allowing the state to put an admirable amount in discretionary funding.

Idaho Future Farmers of America Association President Brett Wilder gave testimony and said funding for agriculture education is falling.

“Ag programs are receiving the same amount of funding that they received in 1998,” Wilder said. “With over 20 percent increase in student enrollments over the past five years, that same amount of added-cost funding is just not enough to give students what they need to go through their agricultural education classes.”

Wilder also urged JFAC to re-establish Idaho’s FFA full-time executive director position. Wilder said the position was cut to part-time in 1982, and now Idaho is the only state in the nation to have more than 4,000 FFA members and no full-time director.

Eagle Rock Middle School students Derik Johnson and Shandy Gillman said their education is compromised for lack of adequate funding. They told JFAC their textbooks are falling apart at the bindings and teachers are unable to cope with growing class sizes.

“Currently, our class sizes are growing bigger and bigger,” Gillman said. “When this happens, the teachers are unable to attend every students’ needs — and in that case, students don’t learn the material that is needed in order to pass.”

Johnson and Gillman told JFAC they have seen the ways poor funding for education has affected their school. Gillman suggested setting a standard size for classes to bridge the gap between extremely large classes — often topping out at almost 40 students — to those that only hold 10 to 12 students. By creating a standard, the state will be able to get the most out of increased funding.

“Idaho can stop playing catch-up with other states and start being the leader,” Gillman said.

Johnson said bringing advanced technology into the classroom does not make up for quality teachers. He said textbooks do not have the ability to adapt to students’ learning styles and laptops take too much time away from class.

“Technology takes 10 minutes to turn on and off, so that’s 20 minutes of class time that is wasted,” Johnson said. “Technology can only go so far — you have to invest in a quality education.”

Gillman and Johnson also addressed the low wages Idaho teachers now receive. Gillman, whose mother is a first grade teacher, said her mom doesn’t earn enough to support a family and must help her grade assignments and with lesson planning on the weekends.

Johnson said it isn’t right to treat teachers this way.

“We’re losing out teachers to other states, because they can’t even afford to live in the state with one of the lowest costs of living in the nation,” Johnson said.

Chloe Rambo can be reached at arg-news@uiaho.edu or on Twitter @CRchloerambo


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