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Two key education bills pass the Idaho Senate; the House and Governor await

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February 28, 2011

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Boise, IDAHO: Perhaps not be the first state to come to mind as legislators square off against unions, Idaho is still bidding to cut back on the packages public sector union workers enjoy in some major ways.

Some key parts of that plan moved a step further to becoming law late last week and begin their next stage toward final passage tomorrow. Senate Bills 1108 and 1110 passed the Senate and are before the House.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna wants to end of the practice of considering seniority in making layoffs, as well as to tie pay to performance. And he wants to rework teachers' collective bargaining privileges.[1] Republican Governor Butch Otter backs Luna on the proposals, a series of changes that, if enacted, could be the most comprehensive change to the way public school teachers are paid, promoted, disciplined, and fired of all the packages currently before various state legislatures.

If Luna is able to pass his plan, teachers will renegotiate every year and will only have the benefit of collective bargaining in salary and benefits, a change from the control they enjoy right now over such areas as grading student work and running parent-teacher conferences, the sort of agreements that Republicans says are indicative of inappropriate influence and that teachers say are vital to their ability to shape the education system. The Idaho Education Association hardly sees eye to eye with Luna, saying his bills would make it too easy to fire teachers. They also say they'll agree to merit pay and more transparent bargaining, so long as new money pays for it all. Idaho has instead trimmed $200 million from education in recent years as the state aims to sort out its budget.[2]

A thousand IEA supporters came to the state capitol as the legislature convened last Monday morning. The previous week, the Senate Education Committee had voted to send the trio of bills on to the full Senate.[3] It was that committee's chair, Republican John Goedde, who sponsored Luna's bill in the legislature. While they made their feelings known, it wasn't enough to stop lawmakers from voting, and two of three bills Luna was touting passed the state Senate on the evening of the 24th.[4]

Finding himself squarely in the public eye over his proposals, Superintendent Luna has spoken to criticism from the IEA and its allies on multiple fronts. Responding to charges that he has abandoned budget cuts in favor of cuts to union negotiated compensation packages, Luna said that, with the current year's cuts added in, education in Idaho has taken a $300 million hit in funding; as he argues it, there is simply no more to cut from the budget without first cutting from the obligations that budget must meet.

Talking about his failure to discuss his plans to champion such bills as he campaigned for re-election last fall and about the fact that he and Governor Otter fashioned the bills without pursuing input from union leadership, Luna said, “There was no willingness at all to change the system...So the governor and I decided to make difficult choices and move forward”[5]

With two of the three bills out of the Senate,the House takes them up on Tuesday, March 1st, while the last is still sitting in the upper chamber and could possibly still be moved into the House.[6]

Should the House vote either bill through, Gov. Otter will likely sign, meaning the resistance of the IEA and its supporters is far from over.