Statehouse roundup, 3.1.24: Unanimous vote propels Phoenix resolution to House floor

A proposal that could slow — or derail — the University of Phoenix purchase cleared its first big hurdle.

After three hours of questions and discussions stretching across two mornings, the House State Affairs Committee unanimously passed a resolution urging the State Board of Education to “reconsider” its support of the Phoenix purchase. The resolution also opens the door to a lawsuit, which could jeopardize the University of Idaho’s $685 million bid to acquire Phoenix.

The specter of a lawsuit — and a section of the resolution, which would allow legislative leaders to pursue a court challenge — factored heavily into Friday’s committee debate.

After hearing a presentation from Attorney General Raúl Labrador, who again said a lack of transparency has plagued the proposed purchase, Rep. Vito Barbieri asked for some impromptu legal advice. Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, asked Labrador if the Legislature had any recourse, aside from filing a lawsuit.

“I don’t want to answer that question right now,” Labrador said, “but that is a very important question.”

The lawsuit language sparked a brief debate within the committee.

Rep. Todd Achilles, D-Boise, proposed sending the resolution to the House’s amending order, saying he wanted to strike the reference to a possible lawsuit.

The idea went nowhere.

“I do think we may need to pursue something legally here,” said Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard.

Achilles cast the sole vote in favor of his motion to amend the bill. Moments later, the resolution passed unanimously.

Friday’s vote came a day after the committee grilled U of I officials, including President C. Scott Green, and State Board member Kurt Liebich.

Green said the purchase could transform online higher education in Idaho and reach rural and adult learners. He also said the purchase would cushion the U of I from a demographic cliff facing all of higher education — a dwindling number of 18- to 22-year-old adults who normally head to college.

Liebich also said a legislative lawsuit could prevent Four Three Education, a U of I-aligned nonprofit, from financing the purchase. And that, he said, could ultimately spike the purchase.

The committee heard mixed testimony Friday about the need to move — or the need to go slow.

Bill Kearns, a U of I graduate from Boise, said the state needs to do something to improve its dismal college go-on rates. And nine months after the State Board publicly approved the deal, he said it’s time for legislators to dig in and help make the purchase happen.

“I trust Scott Green and I hope you do too,” he said. “Don’t squash this deal because you don’t like the way it went down.”

Rod Lewis, an attorney and former State Board member, questioned the U of I’s risk projections — up to $10 million a year, or $50 million — if Four Three fails to make payments. A default could have “catastrophic” effects on the U of I and the state, he said, and the proposal demands lengthy, objective review.

“This might be one of the most important matters in the history of Idaho’s higher education system,” he said.

With the committee’s vote, House Concurrent Resolution 26 could come up on the House floor as early as next week.

Constitutional amendment on private education divides GOP leaders over legislative process

A proposed constitutional provision enshrining home-school and private school rights is heading to the Senate floor after a hearing that saw GOP leadership divided over the legislative process. 

Senate Joint Resolution 105, from Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, would add to the Idaho Constitution a provision guaranteeing rights to home and private schooling “free from government regulation.” 

Idaho currently doesn’t regulate home-school and has some basic regulations for private school like minimum attendance days, record-keeping and immunization reporting. The constitutional amendment would “build a higher wall” of autonomy, said Barry Peters, an attorney for advocacy group Homeschool Idaho. 

Friday’s hearing raised concerns about the consequences of that autonomy, particularly if the Legislature passes a “school choice” bill directing state funds to private school tuition. 

Senate Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Boise, said he worried recipients of such a benefit could be shielded from accountability under the proposed provision. Courts view fundamental rights as “almost sacrosanct,” and “we need to know what we’re getting into if we do this,” he said. 

Herndon tried to ease those anxieties, saying people who receive public funds wouldn’t be protected from accountability measures. But Democratic and Republican lawmakers seemed intent on making it explicit. “What could it hurt?” said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland. Herndon ultimately said he’d be amenable to amending the language.

Republicans disagreed on how to do that.

Lee moved to hold the joint resolution in committee and urged Herndon to rewrite it. “When we bring this language we need to get it right and the amending order is not the right place to do that,” she said. “I want to make sure this language is absolutely clear.”

But two other GOP leaders and the committee chairman, in a 5-4 vote, backed a motion from Sen. Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene, to send the joint resolution to the amending order. That’s a procedural move that carries the resolution to the Senate floor where the full Senate will vote on the changes and the legislation.

“I haven’t heard anything super complex,” Toews said. “It seems like everyone is in agreement on the concept that needs to be amended.”

Replacing the resolution with a new version — Lee’s motion — would’ve required another public hearing, but sending the bill to the amending order does not.

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who supported Toews’ motion, said the Senate has a deadline approaching to transmit the resolution to the House. Lawmakers can, and sometimes do, ignore similar rules. 

Quinn Perry, deputy director for the Idaho School Boards Association, said her group also has concerns about what the provision would mean for existing regulations on private schools. For instance, would private schools be immune from local fire codes, she asked?

“This is our constitution after all so we do think there is some necessary clarity to be added there,” Perry said. 

Two-thirds of the Senate and House must approve a proposed constitutional amendment before it goes to Idaho voters. 

Votes in favor of sending the resolution to the amending order: 

  • Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise
  • Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley
  • Senate State Affairs Chairman Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon
  • Sen. Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene
  • Sen. Treg Bernt, R-Meridian

Votes against sending the resolution to the amending order:

  • Senate Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland
  • Senate Majority Caucus Chair Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs
  • Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise
  • Senate Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Boise

Bill opposing teachers’ union subsidies heads to House

A bill targeting public subsidies of teachers’ unions is headed for the House floor.

Minutes after passing the University of Phoenix resolution, the House State Affairs Committee endorsed House Bill 602.

The bill would outlaw paid leave for union activities, pay raises designed to cover union dues, or spending public money on behalf of a teachers’ union, among other activities.

The bill would not prevent unions from organizing or negotiating on teachers’ behalf. However, it would prevent taxpayers from being forced to pay costs for “both sides of the bargaining table,” said Maxford Nelsen, director of research and government affairs for the Olympia, Wash.-based Freedom Foundation.

Nelsen said he “consulted” on the bill with its Republican co-sponsors, Sen. Benjamin Toews of Coeur d’Alene and Reps. Sage Dixon of Ponderay and Dale Hawkins of Fernwood.

Testimony was overwhelmingly opposed. Representatives of several unions voiced opposition, even though HB 602 addresses only teachers’ unions. Idaho Education Association executive director Paul Stark questioned whether the bill is constitutional, since it singles out the activities of one organization.

“This is an out-of-state solution looking for an Idaho problem,” he said.

Minutes before the House began its floor session, the committee cut off testimony and voted to approve HB 602. Caldwell Republican Chris Allgood joined Boise Democrats Todd Achilles and John Gannon in opposition.

Outcomes-based funding bill heads to House

A pilot plan for outcomes-based K-12 funding cleared a House committee Friday.

House Bill 595 would move $40 million into an outcomes-based approach in two areas: fifth- through eighth-grade math and college and career readiness.

One of the co-sponsors of the bill called HB 595 a small start, within the context of a $3 billion K-12 budget. “I think this is a great step forward in modernizing our school funding,” said Rep, James Pertzke, R-Meridian, who is co-sponsoring the bill with state superintendent Debbie Critchfield.

The majority of the money, $24 million, would go into math. Districts would get to decide how to spend the money — on professional development, coaching, intervention or curriculum — but would have to keep spending on approaches that are working, Critchfield said.

The House Education Committee sent the bill to the House floor, where it could get a vote next week.

Diversity statements bill heads to House floor

The House Education Committee advanced a bill banning “diversity statements” after a contentious partisan debate Friday.

The bill prohibits written diversity statements in the hiring and admission processes at Idaho’s public universities and colleges. 

“The goal here is to put the focus on the commitment to fostering true diversity and merit in higher education and take the focus away from identity politics,” said House sponsor Rep. James Petzke, R-Meridian. 

The State Board of Education approved a policy last year banning diversity statements, but it applied only to hiring. Senate Bill 1274 also applies to admissions. 

Committee Democrats vigorously opposed the proposal. Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, suggested the bill is a “political statement in an election year,” prompting a warning from the chair to temper his debate.

For college employees who assist students from marginalized populations, “it very much matters” whether they have a “personal history with overcoming barriers,” said Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise. Galaviz asked Petzke how the bill would impact hiring for those roles. 

He responded that the bill simply bars requiring someone “to agree to an ideology as a requirement of hiring or admission…It doesn’t say you can’t have a discussion about an issue.” 

The committee voted along party lines to send the bill to the House floor. It already cleared the Senate.

New bill would update ‘in-demand career’ definition for Launch

A bill introduced Friday would update how “in-demand careers” are defined for the purposes of Idaho Launch grants. 

The $8,000 scholarships go to high school students seeking job training for in-demand careers. “In-demand” currently is defined as careers that have “a high number of openings…or an expected high rate of growth.” 

The bill, from Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, would change that to “careers that have an economic output for the state…and increase economic mobility for the people of Idaho.” 

The new definition would allow for a “matrix of careers and training programs” qualifying for Launch based on: 

  • The number of openings
  • The rate of growth
  • The transferability of skills
  • The length of the training program
  • The wage potential 

Also, the bill would exclude careers that require a master’s degree. 

During a brief introduction in the Senate State Affairs Committee Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said the bill is “trying to provide some definition of what in-demand careers are.”

Lawmakers have been critical of the careers identified by the Workforce Development Council as “in-demand” for Launch. Last month, Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, called the list “incredibly disappointing,” noting it cited clerical work among the most in-demand careers.

The new bill could return to a committee for a public hearing in the coming days or weeks.

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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