Session Preview: In Idaho, education’s a top priority

January 7, 2014

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, right, talks with reporters about proposed changes to prison management on Friday at the State Capitol building. (Otto Kitsinger/AP)

Education and health care will take center stage during the 2014 session of the Idaho legislature, which kicked off on Monday with Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s State of the State address.

Implementation of a five-year education reform plan, based in large part on the findings of a task force he convened, will be a key priority for Otter this session. The task force made 20 recommendations to help the state achieve a goal of 60 percent of Idahoans between the ages of 25 and 34 having a postsecondary degree or credential by 2020. Those recommendations included increasing teacher salaries and restoring operational funding to 2009 levels.

It’s a non-controversial move for Otter, who is up for reelection in November, the Spokesman Review reports.

One issue on which there’s widespread agreement is that Idaho must improve its education system, after years of budget cuts and after voters last year repealed a package of controversial reform laws.

Now, all sides have agreed on a $350 million slate of improvements outlined by a task force that Otter appointed. Idaho lacks the money to do it all at once, but Otter is calling for phasing in the improvements over the next five years, from restoring budget cuts to boosting teacher pay to reforming student advancement and teacher licensure.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he’s been carrying the list of the task force’s 20 recommendations with him everywhere he goes. “This will be a driver this session,” he said.

As in many states, implementation of the president’s health-care law will continue to play a central role in the 2014 Idaho session. Otter pushed for the state to create its own exchange last year, to the chagrin of some members of his own party though others have defended the move as a way to better manage the rollout of the law. In his address, Otter also said the state will pass on expanding Medicaid this year — and therefore also pass on the associated federal dollars — as officials continue to study its impact.

Finally, expect to hear more about prison reform. Otter over the weekend announced that the state would take over its largest prison “abruptly ending an experiment with privatization,” the Associated Press reported. As the Spokesman Review reported last month, nonviolent offenders in Idaho remain behind bars twice as long as they do in the rest of the nation.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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