Statehouse roundup, 1.18.21: House committee seeks to lift caps on public gatherings

A House committee signed on to a proposal to lift crowd limits on public gatherings — including school sporting events.

That sets up a potential House floor vote this week, and possibly a showdown with state leaders who have imposed the cap on public gatherings. In pushing for his House Concurrent Resolution 2, Rep. Brent Crane said part of his strategy is to pressure state officials.

“Sometimes what you have to do is move legislation forward,” said Crane, R-Nampa, moments before the House State Affairs Committee approved HCR 2.

The resolution addresses all caps on public gatherings, which Gov. Brad Little has established in an attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus. No more than 10 people can attend most gatherings. The state eased its limits on school sporting events, but slightly; each athlete can invite two people to attend a game or match.

School sports were the focal point of Monday’s debate, and Crane said the state’s “crazy restriction” on crowds hits home for him. His son will play in his school’s season-opening basketball game Thursday, and Crane said either he, his wife or his daughter will have to stay home.

Two student-athletes and student leaders traveled from Ammon to testify in favor of Crane’s resolution.

Demik Hatch, student body president at Hillcrest High School, noted that he and his football teammates could at least play in front of a student section this fall. Basketball teams don’t have that opportunity. Restrictions are having a clear effect on student morale, he said.

“Being in a school is a drag right now,” he said. “It feels like a chore.”

Kyler Stevens, Hillcrest’s student body vice president, said the school’s ninth graders have not been able to attend athletic events, as other students have in past years. “I worry that they’re going to be missing out on these experiences and the social interactions.”

Hillcrest has reported at least 69 coronavirus cases this school year, according to Department of Health and Welfare data. As of Friday, only eight schools in Idaho have reported more cases.

Testimony ran entirely in favor of the proposal, and only Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, voted against sending the bill to the floor. He instead suggested the Legislature work with state leaders on another solution to the attendance issue — such as tailoring seating caps to the size of the venue.

“I feel like we’ve been boxed in a little bit,” he said.

As a concurrent resolution — and not a bill — Crane’s proposal would not have to go to Little’s desk for his signature. It would pass simply with support from the two houses. But Crane said it’s unclear whether the resolution would affect local governing bodies, which have tailored their attendance guidelines to meet Little’s coronavirus order.

“(It’s an) unanswered question,” Crane said.

Education committees delay action on enrollment rule

After a slow start last week, the House Education Committee voted to slow things down even more Monday, delaying action until Feb. 3 on an enrollment reporting rule.

The Senate Education Committee didn’t act on the rule either. And after Monday afternoon’s meeting, it’s unclear when the committee will act.

Pending rules, such as the enrollment reporting rule at issue, need only be approved by one legislative chamber in order to be adopted. And that was the crux of the discussion Monday morning, as House Education mulled its next move.

“Once the Senate says ‘yes’ anything we do in here is moot,” said Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls. “But I’m not prepared today to vote on this docket and would like more time.”

Some of House Education’s Democrats seemed slightly puzzled by the Republican majority’s reluctance to move forward.

“I understand we’re not in a hurry, but at same time I don’t want this process to drag on any longer than it really needs to,” said Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City.

Senate Education spent about an hour discussing the rule — and its implications for funding schools during the pandemic. But committee Chairman Steven Thayn said he’d like to consult with the House before figuring out the next move — and said lawmakers could wind up looking at legislation on the complicated topic.

“There’s some moving pieces and I don’t know what they are yet,” said Thayn, R-Emmett.

While arcane, the funding rule is critical, because it will help determine how the state carves up some $2 billion for K-12.

The State Board of Education approved a temporary rule in December allowing school districts to use an enrollment calculation to determine funding. That’s a departure from Idaho’s historic attendance-based approach. School leaders are seeking the change to an enrollment model, saying that many students are shifting between online and hybrid learning models during the pandemic — and are not in a physical school building that tracks attendance.

In a typical legislative session, committees review agency rules before voting on bills.

Reluctance to move forward on education issues has been a theme in House Education for a couple of years. Reps. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, and Marshall have asked for years now for a simple spreadsheet or flowchart that maps out education funding.

Each year, committee members receive detailed briefings and reports on school budgets and school funding and school programs. Another such briefing is planned for Thursday.

State officials have basically said school funding is a complicated issue and it is hard to boil down a K-12 system with 300,000 students, almost 20,000 teachers, 115 school districts, 70-plus charter schools and $2 billion worth of annual general fund spending into a simple flowchart.

House Education adopted two less complicated rules Monday. But it also held off on taking action on a rule governing vocational rehabilitation services.

With action momentarily on hold, House Education will not meet Tuesday. Senate Education has meetings scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, but no rules or bills are on the agenda. Senators will instead hear a half dozen presentations, on topics ranging from reading scores to early education to the state’s Strong Families, Strong Students grant program.

Editor’s note: Idaho Education News covered Monday’s hearings remotely.


Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin

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