Statehouse roundup, 3.12.19: ‘There’s a lot for everybody to learn, and that is what’s happening now’

The legislative session is now 65 days long, and tempers are noticeably short.

Lawmakers are at an impasse on Medicaid expansion. And when legislative leaders met with reporters for a luncheon question-and-answer session Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats  spent much of their time swapping barbs over a bill that would tighten the initiative process.

Then there’s the rewrite of Idaho’s school funding formula, which has gone nowhere fast.

House Speaker Scott Bedke says he’d still like to get a funding formula bill passed this session. But after spending three years on a legislative committee that studied the funding formula, Bedke struck a philosophical tone Tuesday. He said he doesn’t expect this issue to keep legislators in town in April — and past their target date for adjournment. And he knows some lawmakers are wrestling with the complexities of the issue.

House Minority Leader Mat Erplelding, left, and House Speaker Scott Bedke address the media at an Idaho Press Club luncheon Tuesday.

“There’s a lot for everybody to learn, and that’s what’s happening now,” said Bedke, R-Oakley.

The education process took an unexpected turn Monday morning, when the House Education Committee refused to even print a version of the funding formula bill. Normally, committees routinely vote to print, or introduce bills. And this bill had the backing of committee leadership, Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, and Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth. But the committee voted to kill the bill.

Bedke didn’t fault his committee leaders, saying, “The Legislature will be better off for the research they have done.” Nor did Bedke fault the eight Republicans who bucked committee leadership and killed the bill; seven are in their first or second term in the Legislature. These lawmakers might have felt they were being pushed toward “a predetermined outcome,” Bedke said, all while trying to grasp school funding issues.

“It’s an education process, (and) not enough people knew enough,” Bedke said.

The debate has shifted to the Senate. On Wednesday morning, the Senate State Affairs Committee will vote on whether to print the latest edition of the bill — version No. 12, and counting, said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum. If State Affairs prints the bill, it would likely get a full hearing in the Senate Education Committee, where five of the nine members have served with Bedke on the funding formula committee.

House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding questioned why House Education ditched committee leadership’s bill Monday, vetoing a bill written with education groups in favor of a Senate bill the education groups don’t support. “You have some really weird dynamics going on,” said Erpelding, D-Boise.

But that was a tame exchange compared to the discussion of Senate Bill 1159, which would make it considerably more difficult to get a voter initiative on the ballot.

Bedke said he liked several aspects of the bill — including a requirement that would force groups to secure signatures from 32 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, in rural and urban Idaho alike. Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said lawmakers have been kicking around many of these ideas for years.

Erpelding doesn’t buy it, saying the bill is a clear and direct response to November’s voter-passed Medicaid expansion initiative.

“There is no way this is not about retribution,” he said.

Regardless, the Legislature still has to resolve the Medicaid issue — and respond to the initiative.

Erpelding insists there is a bill in draft form that could garner bipartisan support and pass the Legislature. He declined to divulge details, or say who is behind the bill.

Bedke counts noses differently. On Tuesday, he said he doesn’t have the votes on the House floor to pass a “clean” Medicaid expansion bill, or pass a Medicaid bill with work requirements, or repeal Medicaid expansion outright.

“This is one of the few things that will keep us here,” he said.

If Tuesday is any indication, that could take a while.

Minimum teacher salary bill heads to Little’s desk

It took the Senate only eight minutes to raise Idaho’s minimum teacher salary.

On a 33-0 vote, senators endorsed a two-year plan to boost Idaho’s minimum teacher salary to $40,000.

“We’re struggling to keep our teachers, particularly in those first five to eight years,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, who carried House Bill 153 on the Senate floor.

One of Gov. Brad Little’s top education priorities, the bill would increase minimum salaries to $38,500 next year and $40,000 the following year.

Currently, Idaho’s minimum teacher salary is $35,800. It is the only teacher salary set and mandated under state law.

The first year of the rollout will cost $3.8 million. Year two carries a $7.6 million price tag.

Having already passed the House, HB 153 now goes to Little’s desk.

Senate OKs bill to rework supplemental levies

As school districts across Idaho head to the polls today seeking supplemental levies, the Senate passed a bill designed to ease up on this election cycle.

Senate Bill 1061 would allow districts to seek three- to 10-year supplemental property tax levies, provided a voter-approved levy has been on the books for at least the preceding seven years.

Currently, school districts can only run one- or two-year supplemental levies, which complicates long-term planning.

“I think this bill strikes a good balance,” said Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, who is pushing the bill on behalf of the Basin School District, which is in his legislative district.

Under the current law, districts can actually seek a permanent supplemental levy — provided the levy has been in place for at least seven years, and accounts for 20 percent of a district budget. Five districts have permanent levies in place — and they would remain intact, even if SB 1061 becomes law.

The Senate passed the bill on a 30-3 vote. Only Republican Sens. Regina Bayer of Meridian, Lori Den Hartog of Meridian and Mark Harris of Soda Springs voted no. SB 1061 now goes to the House.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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