Otter: More education, crisis center spending

Posted at 1:39 PM, Jan 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-11 19:19:57-05

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter is proposing a 7.9 percent increase to $1.59 billion to fund Idaho's public schools, marking a second year in a row the Republican governor has proposed steep hikes to education spending as the state continues to recover from the economic downturn.

Otter announced his budget proposal for fiscal year 2017 during his tenth State of the State address to lawmakers. It signaled the beginning of the 2016 Idaho Legislature.

His budget includes nearly $40 million to fund the second installment of a five-year plan to boost teacher pay. There is also a call for $25 million for the state's colleges and universities to expand research and workforce development.

"We are entrusted with the singular constitutional responsibility of providing for a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools throughout Idaho. Frankly, I'm convinced that we would see this as our highest priority, even if it wasn't in our Constitution. So promoting and constantly improving education for the people of Idaho must be the foundation of our work together," Otter said.

Otter says education spending is his top priority for lawmakers to address over the next three years.

In addition, Otter is proposing a new program that would freeze college and university tuition for incoming freshman so they would pay the same rate for at least four academic years.

During his annual address to state lawmakers on Monday, Otter said the program will provide financial predictability for students and families while also provide incentive to finish their higher education in four years.

The governor is also recommending spending $5 million in scholarships for Idahoans with some college education, but who do not have a degree.

Overall, the governor is proposing an 8.8 percent increase in spending for four-year colleges and universities and more than 9 percent funding increase for community colleges for fiscal year 2017.

Otter has also proposed funding an additional behavioral health community crisis center for the state at a cost of $1.7 million.

Otter first proposed establishing crisis centers for the mentally ill in three Idaho cities in 2014, with plans to expand eventually to seven across the state. So far, two of the centers have been created -- the first in Idaho Falls and the second in Coeur d'Alene. The centers seek to help residents with mental illness who would otherwise face jail, emergency room treatment or other expensive interventions that often don't provide effective or ongoing help for their problems.

Otter said that during the first nine months that the Idaho Falls center was open, it had more than 1,000 admissions and diverted 47 people from more expensive in-patient psychiatric care. It also saved an estimated 860 hours of law enforcement officers' time, he said.

The newest center would be in southern Idaho, Otter said, though he didn't say exactly where.

Otter also said he wants the Idaho Legislature to approve $5 million in new spending to cover the recommendations made by a committee of lawmakers who studied how to reform Idaho's public defense system over the summer.

Though that committee is expected to meet later this week to nail down the details on their recommendations, they're considering one option that would give counties that agree to meet certain public defense standards either a 15 percent boost to their public defense budget or $25,000.

Otter also wants $2 million to go to the state's Constitutional Defense Fund, which has been depleted over the years after paying legal fees and attorney costs in failed lawsuits Idaho has faced against the federal government.

If approved, the addition will be the largest funding boost since the fund's creation 20 years ago.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and House Minority Assistant Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, also vowed that they would introduce legislation to raise minimum wage and to introduce a proposal for Medicaid expansion in the 2016 session.

The governor's alternative to Medicaid expansion, announced last week, would provide coverage for basic preventive care, but would omit hospital care, expensive prescriptions and most mental health coverage.

Erpelding said the governor's state-based solution to Medicaid expansion "comes at triple the price" to taxpayers.