Former chief economist says lawmakers don’t live up to Constitutional duty
For 25 years, Ferguson served as the state’s chief economist, working for both Democratic and Republican governors. After retiring in 2010, Ferguson became director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a nonpartisan nonprofit. The organization’s self-described mission is to bring fact-based information and analysis into policy decisions. Ferguson has shared the organization’s findings in meetings with civic groups and by penning newspaper columns.
Originally, Ferguson set out to see what effect the Great Recession had on school funding, but what he learned surprised him.
“What I found… was a much, much bigger issue in play,” Ferguson said. “It is basically the defunding of public education for a period starting approximately in the year 2000.”
Ferguson said tax cuts, budget cuts and a tax shift created in 2006 have led to the problem. Ferguson points out that for two decades lawmakers regularly spent about 4.4 percent of Idaho’s personal income paying for public school. That number has declined since 2000 and dropped to 3.5 percent for this school year – a 20 percent decline.
Even considering the economic downturn, Ferguson said budget cuts and the legislators’ commitment to not increasing taxes is no excuse for “ducking their Constitutional duty.”
“My argument is the Constitution doesn’t say ‘by whatever limited means you define,’ the Constitution says you will do this,” Ferguson said. “When you’re sworn in and take the oath of office, it’s to the Constitution of the state, not Grover Norquist. That means you have to find the wherewithal to do this job.”
Ferguson isn’t the only one concerned with school funding in Idaho.
On Dec. 21, 2005, the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed a District Court ruling that “the current school funding system is simply not sufficient to carry out the Legislature’s duty under the Constitution.”
Although the court indicated it would retain jurisdiction, justices released jurisdiction the following year and the case was closed as of Nov. 30, 2006, according to the Idaho Supreme Court Data Repository.
It isn’t over, however, for Ferguson.
He said the increase in supplemental levies – from $140 million to $169 million in the past year – demonstrates lawmakers fail to meet the equality standard of “uniform” public schools. The supplemental levies reveal inequality, Ferguson said, because they show all districts are not created equal.
The state’s second-richest district, the McCall-Donnelly School District, would raise $4,696 per student through a supplemental levy of .1 percent. Meanwhile, the poorest district, Bingham County’s Snake River School District, would raise just $153 per student by passing the same levy rate.
“Now we see a dramatic increase in the use of property tax, but it’s all unequalized, meaning school districts have vastly different funding capacity from sources being increasingly tapped to make up for a lack of state funds,” Ferguson said.
Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Education, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna was not available for comment on this article.
She said the recent economic recession necessitated cuts to school funding.
“There is no doubt we have been in the greatest recession we have seen in generations, and our Legislature has had to make tough decisions regarding all state funding,” McGrath said.
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