BOISE – What is on people’s minds and what are issues of concern as we head into the 2020 Idaho Legislative Session?
“Education is a constant topic,” said Dist. 7 Senator Carl Crabtree, often raised by constituents. “It’s constitutionally mandated, but we can’t seem to make progress in Idaho, especially K-12. We’re flat, at best, with numbers, and we’ve got to change that.”
Crabtree spoke with regional media in a teleconference last Friday, Jan. 3, in advance of the session’s start. Two-term senator Crabtree (R, Grangeville) represents one of the state’s most geographically spread out districts that includes the counties of Idaho, Clearwater, Shoshone and a portion of Bonner.
One focus for Governor Brad Little is toward literacy where the problem is dramatic with grades K-3, he said, with Little’s goal to achieve 100 percent proficiency. Addressing literacy in these grades is critical, as studies show kids who are not proficient by grade three are dramatically impacted throughout the remainder of their lives.
“Our district defines rural and underserved schools,” Crabtree said. “It’s very small and all rural, generally struggling financially and with its outcome for kids. Why is that, and what can we do about it?”
One solution, he said, is learning from districts that are thriving under these circumstances, such as Nezperce School, which was recently one of four selected by the Idaho State Department of Education for national recognition for helping at-risk and low-income students succeed.
“I always look at things that when they’re a success, it’s the people,” he said. “You can document statistics,” he continued, “but Nezperce has a combination of a strong board, a good superintendent and people surrounding them making them successful.”
Regarding people, the state has improved teacher pay, beginning with starting teachers last year, and this year the proposal is to improve the higher end of the scale. This is to address rural Idaho being a temporary stop for teachers moving on to better-paying locations.
“They’re getting their training in rural Idaho where the pay is poor and the experience is a lot, and then they go on to somewhere else,” Crabtree said. “Is that what we want for rural Idaho? They get good and then they leave us? I don’t think so.”
Crabtree revisited another aspect of improving education through expanding broadband Internet into underserved rural Idaho regions, of which District 7 is the “worst in the state.” The senator sat on the governor’s task force last year evaluating the issue and recommending options to improve coverage. In providing education for Idaho kids, rural areas are at a disadvantage to urban areas, due to the broadband gap, and are unable to compete at the same levels.
Addressing budgetary issues, Crabtree said transportation infrastructure is one on the horizon. Costs per mile are increasing for building and maintaining roads to accommodate a growing population – “Idaho is one of the fastest growing states in the U.S.,” he said – and the impact from commerce putting more fuel-efficient but heavier trucks on highways. Revenues for this are primarily derived from the fuel tax, and with both the increase and projected growth in electric vehicles, which only pay for registration, this is not a sustainable model.
“We have increasing costs per mile, and a decreasing income. What are we going to do about that is going to be a challenge,” he said. As vice chair of the senate transportation committee, and with the current chair set to retire, “there’s a fair chance I will be in a place to make a decision,” and he is open to constituent ideas on, “what to do about this relationship between income and expenses to make it better for the future.”
On the state’s budget, Crabtree said the state is behind about 2 percent on income projections, due primarily to adjustments from President Donald Trump’s tax policy passed last year.
“The governor saw this coming, so he asked for a 1 percent reduction in spending this year, and 3 percent in the coming year,” he said. Another executive level move to keep spending in check is for departments proposing new programs, the money for these has to come out of existing budgets.
“That is just good business,” he said. “People will understand that approach…. That has been a forward-looking view.”