Legislative roundup, 1.12.21: Committees begin to get organized

House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, gavels Tuesday meeting to a close. Photo courtesy of Idaho In Session.

The House Education Committee held its first meeting of the 2021 session Tuesday as it prepares to wade into a debate over administrative rules and funding calculations.

Lasting just longer than 30 minutes, Tuesday’s meeting was short and informal with no action taken.

But the action will seriously pick up Wednesday.

The committee is scheduled to consider an administrative rule from the State Board of Education that allows schools to use an enrollment calculation instead of an average daily attendance formula to determine school funding.

The rule change and school funding calculations were one of the top education issues heading into the session.

Schools have asked for flexibility to use enrollment instead of attendance because students may be shifting between hybrid or remote school models and not be present daily in a school building where attendance can be easily tabulated.

Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, participates in Tuesday’s meeting. Photo courtesy of Idaho in Session.

The overall issue of enrollment vs attendance actually predates the coronavirus by several years. Several legislators favor moving to an enrollment mode where money follows the student.

Idaho’s K-12 schools are the state’s largest general fund expense each year (with funding proposed to exceed $2 billion for the first time this year) and any change in school funding is closely scrutinized. In recent years, leaders of rural and remote schools have also urged legislators to consider how shifting to enrollment-based funding could cause them to lose money.

House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, and Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, said the committee has few rules on its agenda and may be able to wrap up the rules discussion for the year this week.

Committee members did not discuss or debate any of the education proposals Gov. Brad Little outlined in Monday’s State of the State address.

The Legislature streamed video of the House Education Committee in its regular hearing room on Tuesday via the Legislature’s website and Idaho Public Television’s Idaho in Session program. With reduced seating capacity in the room to allow legislators to spread out in observance of COVID-19 distancing protocols, legislative leaders committed to streaming every committee hearing and floor vote this year as the legislature convenes during a global pandemic.

The reconfigured committee room allows Reps. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, and Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, to spread out beyond the dais. Photo courtesy of Idaho in Session.

In past legislative sessions, live audio of House Education Committee meetings was available, but not video unless the committee relocated to a larger auditorium inside the Statehouse. The live color video stream kicked in about 10 minutes into Tuesday’s meeting. Only audio was available when Idaho Education News initially accessed the stream.

In other action Tuesday, the House State Affairs Committee introduced three proposals that are part of House and Senate Republicans’ showdown with Gov. Brad Little over a separation of powers. Two of the resolutions deal with emergency orders, while a proposed amendment to the Idaho Constitution would allow the Legislature to call itself into session under certain circumstances. As things stand today, only the governor is empowered to convene a special session of the Legislature.

JFAC begins six weeks of budget reviews

Legislative budget-writers took their first look at Gov. Brad Little’s spending plan Tuesday morning.

But Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members asked few questions as they began their work for 2021.

Little on Monday proposed a $4.2 billion general fund budget — including what would be the state’s first $2 billion-plus public school budget. Overall, the budget represents a 3.8 percent increase. Public schools would receive a 3.7 percent increase, and Little’s $315.2 million proposal for higher education represents a 2.7 percent increase.

In an overview, Little budget chief Alex Adams repeated several themes from the governor’s Monday State of the State Address. He described the budget as a no-frills plan with few new programs. But Adams also said Little hopes to use the state’s record $600 million surplus to make strategic investments to help Idaho rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the budget highlights:

  • A $455 million earmark for one-time and permanent tax cuts. Most of this money would come from taxes on Internet sales, which soared during the pandemic.
  • A $44.9 million request to fund Idaho’s career ladder, providing pay raises to veteran teachers.
  • A $20 million summer reading program, to help students hampered by the shift to online education. “(Little) doesn’t want this to be the blip on students’ report cards,” Adams said.
  • A $14.2 million transfer from budget reserves to help colleges and universities replace lost revenues during the pandemic — such as room and board payments that were refunded back to students, or losses from canceled athletic events.
  • An additional $9.2 million for the state’s advanced opportunities program, which allows high school students to take college-level dual credit courses at state expense.

The committee’s 20 legislators didn’t drill into the budgets Tuesday, but that will soon change. JFAC will spend more than a month listening to detailed agency budget presentations. The week of Jan. 25 is the committee’s “Education Week,” when JFAC will spend five days hearing from state superintendent Sherri Ybarra and college and university presidents.

The committee could begin setting 2021-22 budgets on Feb. 19.

But even JFAC eased into its work Tuesday, it’s clear that the protocols have changed due to the pandemic. In order to ensure social distancing, several lawmakers are now sitting in makeshift desk space, in an area usually reserved for the public. With public seating limited, that’s likely to make for a different Education Week. Normally, these hearings draw full crowds to JFAC’s hearing room, and Ybarra and the college and university presidents usually bring a phalanx of aides to help answer questions about the budget requests.

Editor’s note: Idaho Education News covered Tuesday’s committee meetings remotely.

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