House passes rewritten office budget for Ybarra, including money for reading test

With little debate and even less fanfare, the House Wednesday passed a rewritten version of State Superintendent’s Sherri Ybarra’s office budget — including money to roll out a new statewide reading test.

The vote, and the apparent resolution of the reading test issue, could put the Legislature back on track to quickly adjourn the session for the year.

On Friday, the House threw the session into a tailspin when it killed the first version of Ybarra’s budget, elevating the disagreement over the reading test. Killing the budget bill also prevented the Legislature from adjourning for the year, at least temporarily, since lawmakers must pass a budget for Ybarra’s office.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee unveiled Plan B on Tuesday. The new budget bill allows Ybarra’s office to spend $550,000 to expand a pilot version of a new reading test for kindergartners through third graders.

The previous budget, killed by the House, prohibited Ybarra from expanding the reading test pilot.

The reading test debate is critical, because the test ties into Idaho’s strategy for identifying struggling young readers and then investing in extra help to improve their reading skills.

Rep. Maxine Bell

JFAC co-Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, sponsored the rewritten version of Ybarra’s budget, throwing a bit of muscle behind the bill. Bell is retiring from the Legislature after 30 years in office. During her debate, Bell said it is the committee chair’s responsibility to take charge when a bill isn’t quite right.

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“The committee process works,” Bell said. “Committees work. Committee members work very hard, and the full intent of what was done prior and what has been done today is about the kids. It’s about getting those third-graders to be able to read and go on from there.”

Notably, House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, opposed the new budget. VanOrden floated a bill attempting to do away with a statewide reading test entirely, while allowing local school districts to pick their own test. More time is needed for an independent evaluation of the new test, she said, and lawmakers should not expand it without knowing if the state is getting a return on its investment.

“What I’ve seen and heard on the national level is a lot of talk about school choice,” said VanOrden, referencing controversial U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “People want choice. I’ve heard a lot of talk about giving education back to states. I like that we’re giving education back to the states.”

However, VanOrden wasn’t even able to rally House Education members to oppose the new budget, which passed comfortably.

The budget passed 61-7, over the objections of a handful of House Republicans: Randy Armstrong of Inkom; Vito Barbieri of Dalton Gardens; Thomas Dayley of Boise; Kelley Packer of McCammon; Caroline Nilsson Troy of Genesee; John Vander Woude of Nampa; and VanOrden.

The budget now heads to the Senate, which could fast-track a vote in order to facilitate adjournment for the year.

After the Legislature recessed for lunch, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said the House might come “pretty close” to running all of the year’s remaining bills by this afternoon. If so, the House would still need to transmit bills and handle some administrative tasks, but the Legislature could be back in position to adjourn the session by the end of the week.

“We will have all the bills delivered to the governor’s office by the close of business Friday,” Bedke said.

Senate passes child tax credit increase

The Senate passed the final tax bill for 2018 — and got a jump on the next tax debate of 2019.

On a 33-1 vote, the Senate signed on with House Bill 675, a $25 million tax cut. HB 675 would provide a $205 child tax credit — building on the $130 child tax credit passed earlier in 2018, in an omnibus tax overhaul.

This increased tax credit is designed to address a shortcoming in House Bill 463, the omnibus tax law. Despite a $104.5 million tax cut, the $130 child tax credit was not sufficient to prevent a tax increase for larger households.

Enter HB 675. The late-session patchup bill passed on a lopsided vote, but not without some drama.

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, sought to send the bill to the Senate’s amending order. He said the $205 credit still isn’t enough to cover all large families — and chastised legislative leaders for crafting $125 million in tax cuts that will actually hurt some Idahoans. “When you’re spending that kind of money, no one should get a tax increase.”

Burgoyne’s bid to amend the bill failed on a 29-6 vote. When the time came for a final vote on HB 675, Burgoyne cast the lone dissenting vote.

But several senators — Republicans Steve Vick, Mary Souza and Abby Lee — used the occasion to revisit a tax fight from 2017. They said they’d like to come back in 2019 take another run at repealing the sales tax on groceries, a proposal Gov. Butch Otter vetoed a year ago.

HB 675 now goes to Otter’s desk. He has signed on as a bill sponsor.

Charter school administrators

House Education signed off on amendments to a bill to create a new charter school administrator’s credential.

Rep. Judy Boyle

Last month, Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, introduced House Bill 566, which would allow charter schools to hire leaders who do not hold a traditional administrator’s certificate.

Boyle said the new bill is necessary to allow charter schools to innovate and hire administrators who will best serve their needs and business model.

Meanwhile, opponents argue the bill would water down standards for charter school administrators and create an unequal playing field between public and charter schools.

The Senate amended the bill Thursday. The bill would now require charter school administrators to meet at least one of several criteria:

  • Five or more years’ experience administering a public charter school.
  • A post-baccalaureate degree and a minimum of five years’ experience in school administration, public administration, business administration or military administration.
  • Successful completion of a nationally recognized charter school leadership fellowship.
  • Five or more years of teaching experience.

House Education voted to sign off on the amendments and sent the bill to the House floor with a recommendation that it pass. The Senate passed the amended bill Monday on a 23-10 vote.

On the bill signings front …

Otter signed three bills Wednesday, including House Bill 578. This bill would enable the state to collect additional sales taxes from Internet purchases — a move that sponsors say could bring in an additional $22 million to $37 million a year.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

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