Statehouse roundup, 2.16.2021: Powerball gets reluctant support in committee

Idaho’s “Powerball bill” is headed to the House floor for a vote.

An unenthusiastic House State Affairs Committee advanced House Bill 607 — which would allow the Idaho Lottery to stay in a growing, international Powerball compact. Education has skin in this game: Over the next decade, Powerball is expected to generate some $200 million in dividends, which go to public schools, the K-12 Bond Levy Equalization Fund, and the Permanent Building Fund, which finances state and campus capital projects.

Idaho’s stake in Powerball is no sure bet, however. The Powerball compact wants to expand beyond into the United Kingdom and Australia. The Legislature has to give the go-ahead in order for the Idaho Lottery to remain in this compact.

Last year, House State Affairs rejected a bill allowing Idaho to take part in international Powerball.

The issue is back this year, because Powerball’s expansion plans were delayed last summer. So it’s up to the 2022 Legislature to make the final decision.

Much of Wednesday’s committee hearing focused on education.

Idaho School Boards Association Executive Director Misty Swanson said schools rely on their share of Powerball proceeds. Citing a recent state report — which drew rough estimates of the state’s multimillion-dollar school building backlog — Swanson said pulling out of Powerball “will only worsen the issue at hand.”

Lawmakers were lukewarm.

Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, said she would like to debate the issue of a state-sponsored lottery independent of school funding considerations.

“We’re using children and education as the poster child to expand gambling,” she said.

Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, said he was uneasy about the prospect of Idaho moving into an international compact. “In my gut, I don’t like it.”

Even the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, said he was opposed to gambling. But, he said, leaving Powerball won’t bring the Idaho Lottery to a standstill; other games would continue.

State Affairs took the unusual step of voting to send the bill to a floor without a recommendation. Typically, committees recommend a bill’s passage.

The House could vote on HB 607 in the next few days.

Parent grants bill heads to House

A bill that would create grants for Idaho families passed the House Education Committee Wednesday.

The Empowering Parents Program would offer families up to $1,000 per student or $3,000 per household in federal money to cover educational expenses including laptops and speech-language therapy.

The program is based on the similarly built 2020 Strong Families, Strong Students grant program. And the success of Strong Families Strong Students warrants putting $50 million more toward family grants, advocates say.

“The program was a huge success,” Idaho Association of School Administrators Executive Director Andy Grover told the committee.

The program would give families with an income of $60,000 or less first shot at the grants; then those who earn $75,000 or less annually; and then all families.

“I have worked for many years to try and get additional resources to students who have the greatest need. We still have a funding formula that doesn’t acknowledge that, and we need to fix that still,” said co-sponsor Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls. “But this is a step in the direction of helping families close that gap for those students.”

Empowering Parents would be a temporary program, unless it’s extended. It would give parents two years to spend funds, and the Legislature would have to pass a separate appropriations bill to fund it.

After lawmaker questions, but little pushback, Senate Bill 1255 passed the committee unanimously. It now heads to the House floor, the last legislative hurdle before the Governor could sign it into law.

Also in House Education: Lawmakers will rewrite a bill expanding scholarship eligibility for dual credit earners, to hedge against concerns that the bill could allow for nepotism.

Teacher incentive bill heads to Senate floor

A bill to create a four-year, $12,000 teacher incentive program is headed to the Senate.

The Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 1290, which would focus on rural and economically disadvantaged schools.

If SB 1290 passes — and if lawmakers fund the program — teachers could receive money to pay off student loans, receive a master’s degree, or get a teaching endorsement in a new subject area. Incentives would max out at $1,500 the first year, and $4,500 in year four.

Unlike a similar bill, which Senate Education rejected in 2021, SB 1290 is not simply a student loan repayment bill. But the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, noted that the average teacher enters the profession with $30,000 to $50,000 of student loan debt.

“We want those teachers to be concentrating on what they are doing in the classroom,” she said, “not working an extra job to pay for their loan payments.”

Several education groups — the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Education Association, Idaho Business for Education and the Idaho Rural Schools Association — took turns praising the bill. Only one group, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, spoke against it.

The bill cleared the committee easily, but not unanimously. Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, voted against the bill. Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, voted yes, but said he might reconsider when the bill hits the Senate floor. While noting rural schools struggle to hire and retain teachers, small communities also struggle to convince farmers and ranchers to return home. “Should we forgive loans for them as well?”

The Senate could vote on the bill in the next few days.

Senate’s dyslexia bill moves forward

A bill that would require the State Department of Education to ramp up its efforts to help students with dyslexia cleared the Senate unanimously Wednesday.

Senate Bill 1280 would mandate that schools:

  • Give the Idaho Reading Indicator, a K-3 standardized test, to fourth- and fifth-graders.
  • Give a second screening to K-5 students who are struggling on the reading test, looking for signs of dyslexia.
  • Train teachers to intervene and help students who have dyslexia and train those teachers to perform the above screenings.

A batch of lawmakers told personal stories of how dyslexia has affected their families before voting for the bill. But some questioned the bill’s approach.

“This bill focuses essentially on the specific learning disability areas of basic reading skills, reading comprehension and reading fluencies,” said Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise, who holds an education doctorate with an emphasis in special education.  “One of my concerns about this bill is a possible over emphasis and over-identification in these three areas, by focusing on the characteristics of dyslexia.”

The SDE opposes the bill, in part because it fails to provide any added funding to support new testing and teacher training requirements. The State Department proposed its own competing bill in the House Education Committee Tuesday. That bill would make a variety of increased efforts contingent on increased funding.

Semmelroth and former House Education chair Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, both questioned whether the IRI could serve as an effective screener for dyslexia; both the House and Senate bills would rely on the IRI.

Still, both Semmelroth and VanOrden voted with 31 of their colleagues to support the bill.

Now, the Senate and House versions will both be in House Education, where Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said Tuesday the two bills will likely need to be reconciled.

School bus speed limit boost heads to House

A bill to increase the top speed school buses are allowed to drive at to 70 mph is on its way to the House floor.

The House Transportation and Defense Committee unanimously passed House Bill 571 Wednesday, which would take precedence over a state rule that caps the limit at 65 mph.

Rep. Charlie Shepherd called it “a safety bill.”

“It is an extreme hazard for school buses on the interstate when they are impeding traffic,” said Shepherd, R-Pollock.

A 2018 State Department of Education issue paper declared the opposite of such proposals, and argued speed limits shouldn’t be increased.

“There is ample evidence that this differential in travel speeds does not present a safety risk to school buses or other vehicles. Slower travel speeds reduce the potential crash severity level in vehicle-to-vehicle crashes involving a school bus, while also reducing fuel consumption,” the paper said.

In Idaho, the highest speed limits are 80 mph for passenger cars and 70 mph for semitrucks on sections of rural interstates.

HB 571 received no pushback from the committee Wednesday before it passed.

Master educator premium ‘grandfather’ bill passes House

The House passed a bill that would allow 23 Idaho school administrators to receive their master educator premiums — bonuses awarded before these educators left the classroom for an administrative post.

It’s a grandfather bill of sorts, as the state is phasing out the $4,000-a-year master educator premiums in 2024. Clow’s bill would fund bonuses only for teachers-turned-administrators, who would otherwise lose their bonuses.

The bill would cost an estimated $191,000 over three years.

It passed the House on a 52-15 vote, with the dissenting votes coming from other Republicans. The bill now goes to the Senate.


Kevin Richert and Blake Jones

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