Legislative news roundup: Wednesday, Feb. 19

Cigarette taxes. The House Education Committee introduced a new bill to change how cigarette tax money is distributed.

State Department of Education Deputy Chief of Staff Jason Hancock brought House Bill 528, which would funnel proceeds from the tobacco tax out of operations funds for school districts over a two-year period.

In recent years, the money had gone into operations funding to mitigate recession-era budget cuts.

Even with this move, Gov. Butch Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna have called for restoring $35 million in operations funding next year.

Hancock said the bill would return the cigarette tax money to its statutory purpose and provide money for school safety and security initiatives.

The pool of money in question totals about $4.7 million, with $200,000 going to the Idaho State Police for lab costs and $80,000 for substance abuse efforts by the Commission on Hispanic Affairs. The balance of the funds would go to districts for substance abuse or school safety measures.

Hancock said the move aligns with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s 2014-15 budget request.

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Vice Chairman Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, pushed to introduce the bill, saying the merits of the proposals need to be debated during a full hearing in front of the committee.

Ag programs. A $604,000 initiative to boost state agriculture education programs passed the Senate.

Twin Falls Republican Sen. Jim Patrick’s bill does not identify a source of funding, but earmarks two uses for the budget boost. A $504,000 incentive grant program would go to top-performing ag teachers, and $100,000 in grants would allow school districts to start up or re-establish ag programs.

With Wednesday’s 34-0 Senate vote, Senate Bill 1275 heads to the House.

Class size. The Senate Education Committee wants the state to do a better job of tracking class sizes.

The committee endorsed Senate Bill 1326, which would require the State Department of Education to put together a database and an annual report on class sizes.

The bill’s sponsor, Boise Democratic Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, said the accurate data will be needed as the state embarks on education reforms. “I don’t think it will be a difficult task for the Department of Education.”

The task for the state will be to work with the districts to get accurate data. “I’m not sure that we are right now,” he said.

The bill goes to the Senate floor.

Lottery. House Education passed a bill to extend the lottery program that benefits public schools and buildings.

House Bill 478 would continue the current distribution format of the money. Three-eights of the proceeds would be directed to the permanent building fund, three-eighths would go to school facilities and one-fourth would go to the bond levy equalization fund.

The bill was brought because the program would expire in September without legislative intervention.

With the committee’s OK, the bill now goes to the House floor.