Radio ad, and response, foreshadows the fight over the Luna laws

The Idaho Republican Party has jumped into a scrum over the Students Come First education laws.

In a news release issued late Friday afternoon, the GOP ripped opponents of the overhaul — and their recent radio ad calling the plan’s school laptop initiative an “unfunded mandate.”

I think this dustup could foreshadow the rest of the campaign. It also shows that the Nov. 6 elections on Students Come First — Propositions 1, 2 and 3 — are seen as more than a series of referenda on the laws themselves. The elections represent a midterm report card for state schools superintendent Tom Luna and fellow Republican Gov. Butch Otter.

Let’s look at the substance of the fight — and the politics:

• The substance: The funding question isn’t as simple as either side claims.

From the ad: “Prop 3 is an unfunded mandate requiring schools spend millions of dollars they don’t have on expensive laptops that are all too easily broken by kids when they take them home, increasing our property taxes.”

It will take three years, and an estimated $40 million, to outfit high school students with portable devices. The state only budgets from one year to the next — so, technically speaking, any multiyear program is “unfunded.” However, Luna spokeswoman Melissa McGrath says, the pieces of the Students Come First overhaul are now written into state law — which means that the Legislature must either fund the laptop program or rewrite that section of the law. She says, then, that the costs of this program cannot be shifted to local districts, and local property taxes.

“Unfunded?” Arguably. “Mandate?” Not exactly.

Now, to the GOP news release: “Despite what the opponents may try to claim, here are the facts: The Students Come First laws are fully funded through new money. ... (The Idaho Legislature appropriated) $2.5 million in new funding to begin deploying laptop devices to teachers and principals in Idaho’s high schools this fall.”

Yes, the $2.5 million funded the first, and least costly, phase of the technology program. But this multiyear effort is not “fully funded,” because, again, it can’t be fully funded. Legislators and governors will make those spending decisions, year by year.

• The politics. I find it interesting that the GOP is getting overtly involved in this election. Their involvement implies that Republicans have uniformly supported Students Come First from the start.

But when the 2011 Legislature approved the plan, that wasn’t the case. Minority Democrats unanimously voted against all three bills, and some key Republicans voted no, in whole or in part. That list includes Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, Idaho Falls; House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, Star; the co-chairpersons of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Sen. Dean Cameron, Rupert; and Rep. Maxine Bell, Jerome; and JFAC’s vice chairpersons, Sen. Shawn Keough, Sandpoint; and Rep. Darrell Bolz, Caldwell.

But it is clear, in the 10-week campaign leading up to the referenda, that GOP leadership intends to rally behind Luna and Otter.

And that might work.

If Republicans can effectively frame the Students Come First debate as a partisan matter — in a presidential year that should favor Republicans — then that’s to their advantage.

If Republicans can successfully demonize the opposition, that also plays into their hands. State Republican Party chairman Barry Peterson blamed the “teachers’ union” for the radio ad, and that isn’t unfair. Teachers’ unions have been the prime contributors to the group behind the ad: Vote NO on Propositions 1,2,3. In Idaho, playing the anti-union card is almost as safe as playing the partisan card.

We have an early glimpse of what to expect between now and Nov. 6. It could be a bitter fight.

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