Statehouse roundup, 2.1.22: New anti-mask mandate bill surfaces

The House State Affairs Committee recycled some familiar bills Tuesday morning — and two could affect schools.

Both bills were introduced unanimously, with little debate, and could come back for a full hearing later.

Mask mandates. This bill would ban local governments, including school districts, from imposing mask mandates.

“God formed us with our faces and with our smiles and with our ability to communicate in that matter,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony.

Hanks said masks should remain optional, maintaining that people would wear them if people were “dying in the streets” from disease, and if they knew masks would prevent the spread.

“I think we can use common sense,” she said.

Hanks modeled her new bill after one the House passed in April, on a 47-22 vote. The Senate never considered the bill before adjourning in May. Hanks brought back a similar bill when legislators reconvened for three days in November, but it never received a hearing.

School districts have wrestled with mask politics throughout the coronavirus pandemic — taking different approaches.

With the omicron variant pushing new coronavirus case numbers to record peaks, the Caldwell School District reinstated a mask mandate last week. A mandate remains in place in Boise.

The West Ada School District reinstated a mandate during the delta variant surge last fall, but phased out the directive in November. The Nampa School District lifted its mandate in May.

Repeat bond issues. Rep. Heather Scott is taking another run at requiring school districts and other local governments to wait before running a repeat bond issue.

The proposed 11-month waiting period is an attempt to curb what Scott, R-Blanchard, called “aggressive taxing districts.”

The bill would not affect other taxing measures — such as schools’ supplemental levies and plant facilities levies.

Scott has run similar bills before, most recently in 2020. The House passed that bill on a 48-21 vote, but the Senate didn’t hear it.

House State Affairs printed Scott’s bill after briefly touching on the costs attached to it.

Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, questioned whether taxpayers would be burdened with higher interest rates because of a delayed bond issue — and he asked Scott to consider that when considering the bill’s cost. Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, argued the opposite — the possibility that interest rates could decline during an 11-month cooling-off period.

New-look Empowering Parents Grant proposal comes forward

The Senate Education Committee Tuesday unanimously introduced a revised version of Gov. Brad Little’s proposed Empowering Parents Grant Program, which would allow families to use $50 million in one-time federal money to cover a range of learning expenses, such as computers and Internet access, textbooks and physical or speech-language therapy.

The original version of the bill, brought forward last week by Sen. Lori Den Hartog, would have fulfilled Little’s proposal to grant parents up to $1,000 per child or $3,000 per household to cover eligible expenses.

But it also would have explicitly stated that parents could intervene in court to defend the program if its constitutionality is challenged. The new-look version removes the bill’s mention of that right, after state education groups said the statement could invite lawsuits, said Den Hartog, R-Meridian.

“Parents have that right … whether we specifically put it in code or not,” Den Hartog told EdNews after Tuesday’s meeting. “So, if that makes (stakeholders) more comfortable, we’ll take it out.”

The new-look bill also makes a pair of technical changes, one clarifying expenses that the grants could be spent on, and the other dealing with the digital platform grants would be administered through.

The new bill could next receive a full committee hearing.

From COSSA to KTEC. Multi-school district partnerships called cooperative service agencies aren’t supposed to get added funding for career-technical education (CTE) programs under state law.

But they have been receiving that funding for years, state CTE administrator Clay Long told Senate Education Tuesday, in response to a question from Den Hartog.

Over the last two years, staff noticed the issue in state code and worked to change it, Long said. The result of those efforts: A bill modifying code so that the agencies can legally receive their CTE funds. Senate Education approved the bill unanimously Tuesday.

“It’s a little concerning to me that we — this may be my pitch for a funding formula (change) — that we could be distributing funds where we didn’t have something authorized in code. And this seems like a pretty big glaring hole that we have missed over the years,” Den Hartog said. “I’m glad to hear they’ve received the funding and I’m happy to support.”

The bill, Senate Bill 1247, was introduced last week.

If the bill passes, it would affect the Canyon-Owyhee School Service Agency in Wilder and the Kootenai Technical Education Campus in Rathdrum, popularly called COSSA and KTEC.

Next, the bill heads to the Senate.


Kevin Richert and Blake Jones

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