By Mark Barnes
State legislators came to Kuna to discuss their accomplishments after the completion of the 2014 legislative session on Monday evening, March 31, but those in attendance focused their questions primarily on education.
Senator Russ Fulcher, who is running against Governor Butch Otter in the Republican Primary in May, and Representatives John VanderWoude and Jason Monks addressed the audience of nearly 30 people before opening the session up for questions and comments. VanderWoude began talking about the success of funding $80 million more in education but he was frustrated with the Democrats being mad about how bad the funding was.
“Maybe you [the Democrats] ought to be happy you got more,” VanderWoude said. “Because a lot of us don’t have any more. Somehow people seem to think the economy is getting better. I just don’t see it yet.”
He said that a few bills got a lot of publicity like the agriculture security bill or guns on campus, but he felt that was because the media decided to focus on those instead of others.
Representative Monks, who finished his first term in the legislature, said that this session’s problems for him were that the more he found out about the legislative process the more he didn’t know. He added that part of education funding included putting money back into the rainy day fund this year and that is what saved us when the state faced budget cuts due to the recession.
“The majority of that money went in to education and health & welfare when budgets shrank,” Monks said. “When we say we’re putting money in the rainy day fund, we’re really putting it there mostly for education and health & welfare needs. I don’t see we underfunded education by putting it in the rainy day fund.”
Senator Fulcher discussed what the legislature didn’t accomplish that he wishes the legislature should have. He said they did not move forward with elimination of the grocery tax.
“I think it had the support of both houses,” he said. “But it didn’t get a hearing; mainly because my name was on it.” He said that’s another discussion however.
The other main issue Fulcher brought up was the state’s inability to use the resources on the 62 percent of Idaho lands locked up by the federal government. “We have immense wealth we’re standing on,” he said, “and we can’t touch it.”
Richard Poythress, a Kuna resident, asked about what Kuna needs to do to get more education funding. He said Idaho is 49th among states in education funding and that it is a proven fact that spending on education results in a more educated population.
“That’s not true,” said Senator Fulcher.
School funding isn’t really the issue he said. People can’t be taxed enough to pay for the levels that people want education to be funded.
“This goes much deeper than funding,” said Fulcher. “This is a structural issue, a culture issue… Until we have an economy that is growing, we can’t address these issues.” He said the root of the solution to our funding needs comes from state management of federal lands in Idaho and benefiting from the resources.
Frustrated that he wasn’t getting a straight answer, Richard Poythress asked several times during the two-hour meeting what else the legislature is doing to improve the economic status of the state. Fulcher related a story about advice he received from an industry executive. He said the executive told him that not until there is a population that is educated and trained to do the jobs, those jobs will not come to Idaho.
Clearly, the majority of the audience and the legislators kept coming back to education and the lack of funding. Many in the audience commenting and asking questions were connecting the dots that more education will result in more jobs… eventually. It just seemed the legislators weren’t willing to make the leap about increasing education funding. They said they’ll work to fix education, but as far as increasing funding above pre-recession levels in the next few years, it didn’t seem likely they would.