Statehouse roundup, 2.8.22: Little signs school staff health insurance bill

Gov. Brad Little signed a bill Tuesday meant to give school employees better health insurance.

Flanked by a trio of Statehouse Republicans, Little heralded House Bill 443 — which passed the Idaho Legislature last week — for setting up a fund designed to hold increased state funding for K-12 school districts’ health insurance costs. Little signed the bill in front of an audience of hundreds of students, teachers and administrators at Melba Elementary School.

“What this particular bill does is: It makes it to where your teachers here in Melba will have just as good of health insurance as any other district in the state,” Little told those gathered in the rural Canyon County school’s gymnasium.

Melba Elementary School students, teachers and administrators listen to Gov. Brad Little’s address.

The new fund is meant to help districts and charter schools cover either the upfront costs of moving onto the state’s health insurance plan or negotiate their own plans with private providers. Though it was cemented into law when Little signed it, the new fund will remain empty until the Legislature decides whether to appropriate a proposed $75.5 million into the new pot to cover those upfront costs.

The new law will also cut a $20 million-a-year teacher “leadership premium” program, a tradeoff to free up funding for health insurance. That change will take effect in July.

The Governor also brought teachers to the front of the gymnasium Tuesday and touted his push for the Legislature to provide one-time $1,000 bonuses for Idaho teachers and a push to increase their pay.

“We’re going to add bonuses for teachers, and we’re going to (increase) teacher pay now and into the future,” Little said, “And we’re all excited about that.”

Both of those measures must still clear the Legislature. Neither proposal has emerged in the Statehouse, but the Legislature’s Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee is expected to begin writing school budgets in the coming weeks.

Little was joined by allies of HB 443 at the signing Tuesday, including Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, and Reps. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Rod Furniss, R-Rigby. The bill encountered little opposition from other Republicans in the Statehouse.

Gov. Brad Little holds the newly inked HB 443, with Sen. Jim Woodward, Rep. Rod Furniss and Rep. Wendy Horman (standing to his right, in that order). Melba School District staff and administrators joined Little for a photo following his address. Blake Jones/Idaho Education News

A related proposal from Little — putting $105 million annually toward school employee health insurance — is also yet to come out of JFAC. If it clears the Statehouse, the move would bring the state’s current $8,400 per-employee spending on school staff insurance up to par with the $12,500 it pays out for other state employees.

The Melba School District isn’t currently on the state’s health insurance plan, and hopes the new fund will allow the district to switch over, Superintendent Sherry Ann Adams told EdNews after Tuesday’s “teacher appreciation rally.” If the new funding can’t cover the switch, she hopes the 100-employee district will have greater leverage to negotiate a better deal from private providers.

Little’s Tuesday road trip came four months before the Republican primary, in which he’ll have to compete against Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, Ed Humphreys and Ammon Bundy if he announces a reelection run. Little is in his first term.

House rejects push for grocery tax repeal

After a lengthy procedural debate, the House voted against taking up a bill to eliminate the sales tax on groceries.

Rep. Ron Nate’s House Bill 448 would cut the grocery tax — a $256 million-a-year tax reduction, and a correspondent decrease in general fund tax dollars available for education or other state programs.

But Tuesday’s vote was focused not on the grocery tax, but on House rules.

Nate, R-Rexburg, introduced his grocery tax repeal as a “personal bill,” meaning the bill was not introduced through a House committee. Lawmakers can draft personal bills, but they are not guaranteed a hearing — and they seldom receive one.

HB 448 was assigned to the House Ways and Means Committee — not the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, which routinely takes up tax bills. Ways and Means, meanwhile, is usually a starting point for bills backed by House leadership, and a burial ground for bills leadership doesn’t support.

Several House conservatives pushed to have the grocery tax bill sent to the floor for a vote, saying the procedural move was the only way to get a vote on proposals that leadership opposes. “Sometimes this place seems like an orchestrated circus,” said Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard.

Other lawmakers, including several committee chairs, argued that bills should run through the routine committee process. Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, said the personal bill is designed to act as a “courtesy” that provides lawmakers a platform for their ideas.

“We should respect that fact in this vote,” he said.

The House voted 49-20 to hold Nate’s bill in Ways and Means.

This was the second procedural move in the past week on the grocery tax front. The Senate last week rejected an attempt to amend a $600 million income tax cut and add a grocery tax repeal.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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