Analysis: Lawmakers agree to spend another $410 million … somewhere

We know the bottom line, but that’s about it.

We know Gov. Brad Little got the Legislature to sign off on an additional $330 million of sales taxes into K-12 — more than $1,000 for every kid in the system. The Legislature also agreed to put $80 million into a new program designed to prepare students for high-demand jobs.

That’s pretty much all we know about House Bill 1, the one and only bill considered during last week’s one-day legislative session. HB 1 says where the money will go, but not how it will be spent.

So perhaps the most extraordinary thing from the Sept. 1 “extraordinary” legislative session isn’t that lawmakers agreed to pour $410 million into education. It’s that they agreed to do so with no plan for the money.

That was no accident. In order to keep on the right side of the state Constitution, which says a single piece of legislation can cover only a single topic, HB 1 had to be written as a tax bill. It creates sales tax funds for education programs, with the spending plan to come later.

If last week’s votes weren’t “extraordinary” — to use the Statehouse lexicon — then they were at least unconventional.

And HB 1 is completely different than the Reclaim Idaho education funding initiative, which proposed income and corporate tax increases that Little and the Legislature clearly wanted to pre-empt. (And they got their way. On Wednesday, Reclaim announced that it would pull its Quality Education Act from the Nov. 8 ballot.) Reclaim’s initiative would have created a standalone K-12 fund, which schools could have used for teacher pay raises, special education programs, all-day kindergarten and career-technical education, among several other items.

Not exactly a restrictive list. But at least it was a list.

And while Statehouse conservatives have long railed about anything they define as throwing money at a problem, the governor and lawmakers clearly considered Reclaim Idaho a political problem. So they threw money at it.

The Reclaim initiative notwithstanding, HB 1 also represents a departure from the way legislators have funded education in recent years.

Lawmakers layer K-12 budget bills with a host of line items. A $72.8 million literacy line item. A $33 million line item for advanced opportunities, largely to reimburse K-12 students who take college-level courses. A $26.5 million classroom technology line item. And the list goes on.

Line items have underlying objectives.

With the growing literacy program — a $13 million line item when Little took office in 2019 — political leaders are hoping to see a direct return: more kids leaving third grade reading at grade level. By putting an additional $105.4 million into school employee benefits, Little and lawmakers are hoping schools will have a better chance of recruiting and keeping teachers and staffers.

Maybe, by the time the 2023 Legislature adjourns, the $410 million from HB 1 will find its way into specific programs with specific objectives. But those decisions will fall to a lot of new elected officials.

Little hopes to be back, and he appears almost a lock for re-election. But at least 42 of the state’s 105 legislators will be newbies — and inevitably, a number of them will land on the House and Senate education committees and the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Idaho also will have a new schools superintendent: Republican Debbie Critchfield or Democrat Terry Gilbert.

The next superintendent will have a unique chance to weigh in on how to spend the new education money, because timing worked against lame-duck superintendent Sherri Ybarra. Her 2023-24 budget proposal was due to the Little administration on Sept. 1, the same day of the special legislative session. As a result, the new education money doesn’t appear in the Ybarra budget blueprint — which still contains several line items, such as another $15.7 million to beef up teacher pay raises, $14.2 million in pay raises for classified staff, and $10 million to restore classroom technology money that was cut during the pandemic.

Critchfield and Gilbert aren’t saying much about where they’d like the new money to go.

“We must direct this money on solutions that get the best return on investment, reduce the burden on local property taxpayers, and get into the classroom for student achievement, learning and preparation,” Critchfield said in a statement.

In his statement, Gilbert said the Legislature will get the final say over the new money. But he also said it’s time for the state to put some money into school facilities.

“Gov. Little and our elected officials ignored the 2005 Idaho Supreme Court mandate that the state had an obligation to bring public school facilities up to good condition,” he said. “Why are our elected officials ignoring this ruling?  It is clear we have the money, but our elected officials don’t have the will.”

Facilities remain a high priority for education lobby groups — alongside familiar needs such as pay raises for classified staff, student mental health counselors and literacy. The priorities haven’t changed much: The education groups were talking about the same issues earlier this summer, before the ever-growing state budget surplus convinced Little to summon lawmakers back to town for a special session.

But now, they have to advocate for their wish list with a whole new group of lawmakers — who will show up for work with their own ideas.

The Idaho Education Association hopes to put the power of membership to work. The union plans to build on its annual lobby day event, by having teachers at the Statehouse throughout the session.

“When our lawmakers can hear personal stories … it makes all the difference,” IEA spokesman Mike Journee said this week.

Idaho School Boards Association deputy director Quinn Perry doesn’t think it should be overly difficult to divvy up the dollars: She’d like to see some money go into big programs such as facilities and classified salaries, with some discretionary money for local needs such as curriculum. Similarly, she wants to take a back-to-basics approach to lobbying the new legislators — focusing on the fact that many lawmakers attend high school football games and local school board meetings, and send kids to public schools in their districts.

“What we forget is every legislator comes from a community,” she said.

It could be that anything goes, Idaho Business for Education CEO Rod Gramer said, since new lawmakers won’t feel beholden to the decisions made last week. But he said the new lawmakers aren’t entitled to their own facts: The influx of education dollars will still leave Idaho near the bottom in national rankings for per-pupil spending.

“We’ve got to change this narrative that we’re spending too much on education,” he said. “And we’ve got to change the narrative that our schools are failing.”

A new cadre of legislators will go a long way toward setting the narrative — and spending the money. HB 1 made sure of that.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 



Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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