Statehouse roundup, 1.16.24: The year’s first budget bills surface

(UPDATED, 4:28 p.m., with clarifications on the scholarship rules considered Tuesday.)

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee began spending money Tuesday.

Divided on party lines, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved “maintenance” budgets for K-12, higher education and other state agencies.

These maintenance budgets include nearly $3.1 billion for public schools and $684 million for the college and university system — but this is neither the bottom line nor the final word. Later in the session, JFAC will take up new proposals and new line items for education and the rest of state government.

“These are things that were passed last year,” said Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, JFAC’s co-chair, before the committee began casting a series of votes on the maintenance budgets. “(They’re) status quo.”

But while the spending bills might be status quo, the same can’t be said for JFAC’s operations, which provide the budgetary backbone for the legislative session.

In past years, JFAC wrote most of its budget bills in a single shot, covering an agency’s entire annual spending. And most of these budget bills surfaced late in a legislative session — creating a logjam both in JFAC and on the House and Senate floors.

The maintenance budgets should go to the House and Senate within the next couple of weeks. If they pass, these bills will ensure agencies have a spending base for the budget year that begins July 1. And then it gives JFAC and the rest of the Legislature time to concentrate on new spending initiatives — such as, for example, Gov. Brad Little’s $200 million proposal to whittle down Idaho’s school facilities backlog.

“Our goal is to try to consider things more fully than we have in the past,” Grow said.

But Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking argued that JFAC was being rushed into a series of big budget decisions. Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said she had only seen the maintenance budget requests Friday.

“I haven’t had the time I need to dig into every single of one of them,” she said.

The House’s JFAC co-chair defended the new process.

The details in the maintenance budgets have been available since September, said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls. And when Democrats questioned whether JFAC would really revisit the budgets and the proposed line items, Horman noted that the committee has an extensive series of budget hearings scheduled over the next several weeks.

“We have every intention of meeting every day,” Horman told Sen. Rick Just, D-Boise. “You can choose to believe that we might not do that.”

The maintenance budgets passed on a series of 15-3 votes, with Ward-Engelking, Just and Boise Democratic Rep. Brooke Green in opposition.

Committees want a closer look at scholarship rule

House and Senate education committee members voted Tuesday to give themselves more time to review a state rule on the Opportunity Scholarship program.

The State Board of Education needs the Legislature to approve a pair of rule changes — which align with Idaho Launch, Gov. Brad Little’s postsecondary incentive program, passed in 2023.

The education committees signed off on a rule to sunset a Postsecondary Credit scholarship. But the committees held off on the Opportunity Scholarship rule change.

As of July 1, new students can no longer use the Opportunity Scholarship for community college. They must use their Opportunity Scholarship at a four-year school, or apply for Idaho Launch dollars instead. However, students receiving the Opportunity Scholarship and Postsecondary Credit scholarships will remain eligible for the duration of their awards.

Opportunity Scholarship rules would be updated to reflect terminology used in the new-look Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which the U.S. Department of Education launched this year, said Jenn Thompson, the State Board’s chief policy and government affairs officer.

A few lawmakers had questions about the rule changes and suggested some of their own. Rep. Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome, doubted whether Opportunity Scholarship recipients who already have a General Educational Development (GED) certification should be required to take college admissions standardized tests, like the SAT.

Reps. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, and Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, wondered how federal financial aid requirements limit the way Idaho scholarship programs can define progress toward a degree. The committee has “adequate time” to get answers before voting on the rules, Clow said.

Agency rule-making is a yearlong process, Thompson said, and the committee only has the authority to accept or reject rules. “You can strike a whole section, but we can’t edit the text at this point in the process,” she said.

The Senate Education, which considered the same rule changes Tuesday, voted unanimously to hold the Opportunity Scholarship updates. Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, said the committee should wait until it better understands concerns from the House side.

Bill to ban mask mandates surfaces

Four years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, two lawmakers want the 2024 Legislature to outlaw mask mandates.

House Bill 396 would ban mask mandates “for the purpose of preventing or slowing the spread of a contagious or infectious disease.” State and local agencies could simply recommend the use of masks.

The bill would apply to school districts as well as state, city and county agencies.

The House State Affairs Committee voted Tuesday to introduce the bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, and Rep. Jacyn Gallagher, R-Weiser.

Kevin Richert and Ryan Suppe

Kevin Richert and Ryan Suppe

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business.

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