Statehouse roundup, 3.13.23: House panel OKs property tax bill with big implications for schools

A big property tax relief bill — with big implications for schools — is on its way to the House floor.

The House Revenue and Taxation Committee gave its green light to House Bill 292. Promising up to $355 million in immediate tax relief, and ongoing tax relief, HB 292 appears poised to be the property tax bill of the 2023 session.

In its first year on the books, HB 292 would send out some $100 million to schools, paid out based on average daily classroom attendance. Schools would be expected to use their share of the money to pay off existing bond issues and levies. But if schools have any leftover money, they could put it toward future building projects, or bond against the state’s money.

Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Jason Monks, a bill co-sponsor, reminded committee members of state’s responsibility to help pay for school facilities.

“It’s a start,” said Monks, R-Meridian, who co-chaired a House-Senate working group that spent the fall studying the state’s school facilities backlog. “It gets us moving in that direction.”

But for schools, the money comes with a cost.

HB 292 would also eliminate the March school election — the most popular date for districts to run bond issues and levies. On Tuesday, districts across Idaho will seek more than $1 billion in ballot measures, likely a state record.

The language eliminating the March election date — one clause in the 20-page bill — left Idaho School Boards Association deputy director Quinn Perry in a quandary. She told lawmakers that she supports the overall goal of property tax relief, but the March school election date gives schools a chance to seek a levy before they have to begin teacher negotiations in the spring.

The March election date was a focal point in the committee’s debate.

Monks said it was “appropriate” to eliminate the March date, as part of HB 292’s tradeoff. He contended that schools still would be able to pursue levies in May, before having to set their budgets in July. And he noted that the schools could still seek levies in August or November, as a failsafe.

Rep. Lauren Necochea called the March election language a “poison pill” in a bill designed to provide homeowners with much-needed property tax relief. She said schools need the flexibility to run levies, especially during a downturn.

“I wish we didn’t need supplemental levies,” said Necochea, D-Boise. “I wish we didn’t need the March election date at all.”

Earlier this year, the House passed a standalone bill eliminating the March and August school election dates.

On Monday, Necochea cast the sole vote against HB 292, which went to the House floor with bipartisan support. A vote on the House floor could come in the next few days.

New tweaks proposed to Idaho Launch

A bill to tweak the Idaho Launch program has itself been tweaked.

The new bill would further modify Gov. Brad Little’s incentive plan to encourage high school graduates to pursue in-demand careers.

The modifications:

  • Students would no longer be allowed to use their Idaho Launch money to attend a four-year college. They could only use the money for community college, career-technical education, or workforce training.
  • The Opportunity Scholarship would remain intact. The original Idaho Launch bill phased out the Opportunity Scholarship, which provides up to four years of aid to eligible college students.
  • High school graduates could receive up to $8,000 in Idaho Launch money, down from an $8,500 cap.
  • Idaho Launch money would cover no more than 80% of postsecondary costs; students would be expected to be pick up the balance.
  • The Idaho Launch program would end in 2029.

The bill, unveiled Monday, is known in Statehouse parlance as a “trailer bill.” It would revise the original version of the Idaho Launch bill — which narrowly passed the House, and now is sitting on the Senate floor, where it could be amended.

With little discussion, the Senate State Affairs Committee introduced the new trailer bill, which could come back for a full committee hearing at a later date.

Teacher spending accounts bill headed to Senate floor

A bill designed to cover teachers’ out-of-pocket classroom costs is headed to the Senate floor.

Senate Bill 1153 would create “teacher spending accounts,” and give educators the balance of the school year to spend their share of the money.

The bill would cover a range of expenses, from supplies to training. A co-sponsor, Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, cited one example he had heard from a teacher; the money could replace antiquated Idaho history textbooks that contain racially insensitive language.

The bill doesn’t set a per-teacher limit and it doesn’t have a price tag. It would be up to the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to fund the new program. But Herndon said it could cost about $15 million a year to provide $1,000 for each of the state’s 15,000 classroom instructors.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor, but lawmakers sent it to the Senate’s amending order. Sponsors are looking to make a minor modification to one of the bill’s definitions. However, during the amending process, any lawmaker can propose any change to a bill.

Charter authorization bill dies in committee

A bill to allow religious colleges and universities to authorize charter schools died in the House Education Committee Monday morning.

Idaho’s non-sectarian colleges and universities can authorize charter schools, as can local school districts and Idaho’s public charter school commission.

But private religious colleges, like Northwest Nazarene University or Brigham Young University-Idaho, cannot become charter authorizers.

House Bill 290, brought forward by Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, would have removed that limitation. It also would have allowed a nationally accredited private college to become an authorizer. Idaho laws limit that power to private colleges accredited by the same organization that accredits public higher ed institutions.

But committee members voted to kill the bill over accreditation and funding concerns.

Rep. Dan Garner, R-Clifton, voiced concerns about Idaho’s Blaine Amendment, which prevents state money from funding private parochial schools. Karen Hansen, who testified against the bill, called the bill “constitutionally unsound,” due to potential overlap of church and state.

Dixon said the bill would not violate the Blaine Amendment, but Garner erred on the side of caution.

“I think there’s already a way for those charters to come about which doesn’t muddy the water,” Garner said.

The committee held HB 290 with a 11-5 vote.

Senate approves supplemental funding for dyslexia screening, trainings

Districts could soon see reimbursements for costs relating to a 2022 dyslexia law.

The Senate approved House Bill 208 — a $1.5 million supplemental funding request. It passed on a 26-7 vote, with two senators absent.

The supplemental request seeks to fill a gap in funding.

In 2022, the Legislature passed House Bill 731, requiring school districts to implement dyslexia screenings and diagnostic measures, and participate in dyslexia trainings. Costs related to HB 731 came out of districts’ discretionary budgets, due to an absence of state funding. HB 208 would reimburse districts for those expenses.

The bill now awaits approval from the House.

In other Senate action Monday:

  • House Bill 163, a far-reaching parental rights bill backed by state superintendent Debbie Critchfield, passed the Senate on a 34-0 vote. It now goes to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.
  • House Bill 112, a bill to transfer three IT staffers from the State Department of Education to the State Board of Education, got approval from the Senate Monday morning. It now goes to Little..

Community college bill introduced

House Education Committee introduced a bill to allow community colleges to access funding for upper division courses and bachelor’s degree programs. The bill replaces a previous bill, House Bill 217, which sought to allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degree programs.

According to the sponsor of both bills, Rep. James Petzke, R-Meridian, the initial bill is no longer necessary, due to recent communications from the State Board of Education.

The intent is to “allow community colleges to create highly affordable and employable degree opportunities,” according to the statement of purpose.

The committee introduced the bill unanimously.

Higher ed health programs funding moves forward

The Senate approved more than $27 million in funding for health education programs at state colleges and universities Monday morning.

Senate Bill 1147 would appropriate $27,215,100 to support four higher ed programs:

  • University of Idaho: The Washington-Idaho-Montana-Utah Veterinary Education Program.
  • University of Idaho, University of Washington: The WWAMI Medical Education Program.
  • Idaho State University, Creighton University: The Idaho Dental Education Program.
  • University of Utah: The University of Utah Medical Education Program.

The bill would also provide support to four medical residency programs throughout Idaho.

Several senators noted Idaho’s physician shortage as they debated in support of SB 1147.

But Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, said the bill could violate state law — namely the No Public Funds for Abortion Act, implemented in 2021. Programs relating to the University of Washington, Herndon said, would allow Idaho students to perform abortions and abortion-related medical services.

Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, clarified that none of the money under SB 1147 would go to abortion or abortion-related activities.

“When we send money to Washington, it is very, very clear what that money cannot be used for,” Cook said.

The budget item passed with a 24-9 vote. Two senators were absent.

It now awaits approval from the House.

House approves change to health insurance buy-in

A bill amending the public health insurance participation fund is headed to the Senate.

In 2022, lawmakers allocated $105 million annually to enhance insurance benefits and lower premiums for K-12 employees. The same law allocated $75 million in one-time funds to help districts buy into the state insurance plan. A year into the program, some districts have joined the state plan.

But some school districts say the money doesn’t cover their buy-in.

House Bill 203 would remove the $4,500 per-support unit cap on the fund. It also extends the fund’s sunset date to 2025 — giving schools another year to participate.

HB 203 passed the House with a 43-26 vote Monday afternoon. It now heads to the Senate.


Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber

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