Statehouse roundup, 2.9.24: House passes education ‘maintenance’ budgets

The debates were shorter — and the votes far more lopsided — as the House passed a pair of big “maintenance” budgets for education.

One bill provides nearly $3.1 billion for K-12. The second, a $1.1 billion omnibus, funds higher education and other agencies under the State Board of Education’s purview.

Friday’s votes also capped a heated and historic week in the House. On Wednesday, a deeply divided House narrowly passed the first of the 10 maintenance budgets, in a vote that divided GOP ranks and constituted a public attempt to defy House leadership. On Thursday, House Republicans voted to oust Majority Leader Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, after she voted against that maintenance budget bill.

The turbulent events, and the exceedingly rare vote to demote a legislative leader, cast a backdrop over Friday’s education budget votes.

“I think we’ve seen the wishes and the direction we wish to go on these budgets,” said Rep. Matt Bundy, R-Mountain Home, as he opened debate on the State Board’s maintenance budget. Bundy was one of six Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members who voted against the courts maintenance budget that the House passed Wednesday.

“We’ve been asked to trust the process. And with trepidation, I am doing so,” said House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, speaking in support of the State Board budget.

“I’m willing to begin the healing … but not on my schools,” said Rep. Greg Lanting, R-Twin Falls, before voting against the K-12 maintenance budget.

Both education budgets passed the House handily. The State Board budget passed on a 56-11 party-line vote. The K-12 budget passed 53-14, with Blanksma, Lanting and Rep. Jerald Raymond, R-Menan, joining the House’s 11 Democrats in opposition. By comparison, the court system maintenance budget squeaked by Wednesday on a 38-31 vote.

Still, Friday’s floor debates centered on the recurring concerns raised Wednesday. While House leaders have said next year’s maintenance budgets essentially give state agencies the money they received this year, opponents are skeptical. They don’t believe the budgets would adequately fund ongoing operations — and they aren’t convinced they will ever get a chance to vote on followup budgets that would fund line items and new programs.

During the K-12 budget debate, Republicans and Democrats noted that the maintenance budget doesn’t fund movement on the teacher career ladder — pay raises educators earn by moving up the salary schedule.

“If this were my raise, I would be very nervous,” said Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston, who ultimately voted for the bill.

Under questioning from McCann and other lawmakers, JFAC co-chair Wendy Horman said the career ladder money is on the way. “That will come in a future budget,” said Horman, R-Idaho Falls.

Rep. Steve Berch was unconvinced, noting that the Legislature has never funded state government by starting with maintenance budgets.

“I cannot trust a process that has never existed before … and has such monumental impact,” said Berch, D-Boise.

The House-passed budget bills now go to the Senate.

Senate also works on maintenance budgets

The Senate in a series of party-line votes Friday approved budgets for constitutional offices, health and human services and natural resources, effectively endorsing JFAC leaders’ maintenance budget process.

Senate Democrats, like their colleagues in the House, were skeptical that additional agency spending requests would return to the Senate floor. “I continue to be concerned about our lack of understanding about what these maintenance budgets are,” said Sen. Ali Rabe, D-Boise.

These bills now go to the House.

House passes immunization registry opt-out bill

The House Friday passed a bill requiring parents to opt in to the state’s immunization registry.

Currently, parents must opt out of the Immunization Reminder Information System.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, said IRIS registration has no effect on Idaho’s childhood immunization rates, which are among the lowest in the nation. She said House Bill 397 would simply make it easier for parents to make choices.

“If you want the government to collect your data, they will gladly do so, if you opt into the system,” she said.

Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, said the bill would saddle health care providers with the burden of tracking two sets of children — kids enrolled in IRIS, and kids outside the system.

After the House’s 56-11 party-line vote, the bill heads to the Senate.

Diversity statements bill heads to Senate

A bill prohibiting campus diversity statements is headed to the Senate floor.

Senate Bill 1274 codifies a State Board of Education policy, passed last year, addressing the hiring process. The bill would extend the ban on diversity statements to admissions.

Sen. Treg Bernt, R-Meridian, the bill’s co-sponsor, said he wants to ensure colleges and universities focus their decisions on merit. “It takes the focus away from, I guess you could call it, identify politics.”

Many of the questions came from two committee members who have worked in higher education: Sens. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, and Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise. Lee wondered if employers would be able to ask applicants how they would work with veterans or other student groups. Wintrow wondered if all questions about inclusion were off-limits.

“In my experience, we always interview people based on merit,” she said.

Bernt said he wasn’t qualified to offer legal advice. But he suggested colleges and universities would be on solid ground as long as their process focuses on merit.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted to send the bill to the Senate floor, with Wintrow voting no. A floor vote could come in the next few days.

New bill would expand bullying reporting requirements

A new bipartisan bill would direct public school administrators to notify parents when their child is the aggressor or victim in a bullying incident. 

The proposal, introduced Friday, would beef up public school bullying and harassment reporting requirements, which are lacking, according to co-sponsor Rep. Chris Mathias. The Democrat from Boise said most school districts, including the largest, are reporting no instances of bullying. 

“Whether this is true or not, is not important,” Mathias told the House Education Committee. “What is important is that we figure out a way to make these reports more meaningful and impactful.” 

Current Idaho law directs school districts to “undertake reasonable efforts” to share harassment, intimidation and bullying data with school staff and parents. 

The bill would add requirements for principals: to notify parents when their child is involved in a bullying incident — either as the victim or aggressor. Principals also would have to give parents information on suicide prevention and limiting students’ access to tools to harm themselves or others. 

“There’s a very tight nexus between kids who are harassed, intimidated and bullied and youth suicide and school shootings,” Mathias said. 

Republican Reps. Dan Garner of Clifton, and Greg Lanting of Twin Falls are co-sponsors of the bill. Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise, is also a co-sponsor. 

The education committee unanimously voted to introduce the bill, which could return for a public hearing in the coming days or weeks.

Digital Learning Academy formula reform clears House

The House on Friday swiftly — and almost unanimously — approved three education bills, including one that would simplify the funding formula for the Idaho Digital Learning Academy. 

House Bill 452 would provide IDLA $430 for every class a student takes, which the Legislature’s budget committee could change year-to-year if teacher salaries change. 

The current formula is a “complicated calculation,” said Rep. James Petzke, R-Meridian. That forumula hinges on the broader K-12 school system budget and includes metrics for transportation and facilities.

“Of course, Idaho Digital Learning Academy doesn’t have some of those things, so it doesn’t make sense to tie IDLA’s funding to the way we fund other schools,” Petzke told the House.  

Only one lawmaker — Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene — opposed the bill. It now heads to the Senate. 

House approves lifting cap for CTE scholarships

The House also approved a bill to give high school students more options for spending Advanced Opportunities dollars.

House Bill 454 would allow students to spend up to $1,000 annually on a career-technical education course, lifting a $500-per-class cap. Bill sponsor Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston, said that would provide more flexibility, and she estimates 50 to 150 students will take advantage of it. 

The top end of the estimate would cost the state about $75,000, McCann told the House. ”There’s always the chance that the students that were in the budget last year may not take a course, so it’s really hard to determine,” she said. 

The House unanimously voted to endorse the bill and send it to the Senate. 

Bill would allow debit/credit cards for activity purposes

The House unanimously advanced a bill to allow school districts to use debit or credit cards for activity expenses. 

Current statute only allows for paper checks. 

“It really hampers their ability to buy pizza for student council or be able to buy the materials needed for a STEM night, what have you,” said Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise, the bill’s sponsor.

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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