Senate Democrats push for bonuses, ‘sick leave bank’ for school employees

Senate Democrats want the state to free up federal coronavirus money for a laundry list of needs — including bonuses and a “sick leave bank” for teachers and other school employees.

The lawmakers unveiled their bill Friday, three days before the Legislature reconvenes its unprecedented 2021 session.

“We’re going to try to do some good, if we’re going to be here,” Minority Caucus Chair Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said during a virtual news conference.

The bill lays out several priorities for the unspent federal coronavirus aid. Among them:

  • A “sick bank” covering teachers and other public employees who contract the coronavirus, or who are forced to quarantine. As Idaho Education News reported in September, some districts are already using federal money for extended sick leave, but others aren’t.
  • One-time bonuses for essential workers. For example, a $1,000 bonus for teachers would carry a statewide price tag of $20 million, Ward-Engelking said.
  • Rapid COVID-19 testing, including school testing.
  • A COVID-19 vaccine injury compensation program.
  • Mobile vaccination clinics and in-home vaccinations.

The Democrats’ bill sets no price tags — for the entire spending plan, or any of its components. But the Democrats maintain the state has received abundant federal aid, and should stop sitting on it.

“We have a lot of immediate need that we should be talking about,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum.

Lawmakers could be looking at a long docket of bills when they return to town Monday.

Legislative leaders have said they want to focus only on bills addressing federal vaccine mandates. House members have submitted 32 draft bills on this topic alone, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, told Idaho Education News Thursday. One such bill — written and released by Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton — would make it a misdemeanor for employers or public entities to ask about a person’s vaccination status.

But there is nothing stopping lawmakers from trying to float any bill on any other topic, lending an air of uncertainty to next week’s sessions.

The session will reconvene under a legal cloud, said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. The Senate passed an “irrevocable” motion to adjourn for the year, he said, and Gov. Brad Little hasn’t called the Legislature back into session.

While Burgoyne isn’t sure next week’s session is legal, he says Democrats should push next week on spending federal coronavirus aid.

“We’re going to be here anyway,” he said.

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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