Clear Up The Message 

School funding initiative has harder sell

Things have gotten tougher for proponents of increased school funding.

Backers of a Proposition 1, the ballot initiative to increase the amount of money that Idaho sends to its schools, used to have their slogan down pat: A Penny For Education. They have a well-funded campaign, backed chiefly by the Idaho Education Association, and a slick media operation, and more than 80,000 signatures from people who wanted the penny-for-schools measure on the ballot.

But in just one day last month, the Idaho Legislature took that penny, a 1 percent increase in Idaho's sales tax, and directed it to the state's general fund to help offset a property tax decrease pushed by Gov. Jim Risch.

No problem, say organizers: they wrote language into their proposal to say that if the Legislature acted that way, the proposal would instead ask the state to direct an extra $200 million at schools. The $200 million reflects the rough amount that raising the sales tax would create.

The difficulty the initiative backers has becomes evident when the group tries to make its pitch to different groups. Ray Stark, the lead lobbyist for the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, noticed the shift when he listened to McLean speak on the matter last week.

"I don't know how they're going to sell it," Stark said. "It will be more difficult to explain the ballot measure in an easy soundbite."

Add to that the money crunch Idahoans are likely to feel in a few weeks, when the Legislature's sales tax increase takes effect, on Oct. 1.

But organizers--mainly, the state's teachers union--say their message is even more relevant now. Because the Legislature's actions don't guarantee that new money will go to schools, their pitch is still the same.

"It means we need Proposition 1 more than ever," said Lauren McLean, campaign manager for the initiative's backing group, the Invest in Our Kids' Education Campaign.

Nothing, McLean said, has changed about Idaho's education funding issues. Idaho still ranks 45th in the nation for per-pupil spending, she said.

Also, Prop 1 supporters say that because the tax shift plan passed by the Idaho Legislature does not specifically direct money to schools, the initiative is the only direct shot voters can take at sending more money to Idaho schools.

The initiative does not, however, say where the money should come from. That has been a stumbling block for some.

The measure's opponents say the measure is designed to help unions, the measure's main backers, garner bigger paychecks. The measure does not specify how the money should be spent.

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