Statehouse roundup, 3.14.23: Boise State building project survives … barely

Funding for Boise State University’s science research building survived a close vote Tuesday.

On a 10-9 vote, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a budget that partially funds the Boise State project.

The funding is found in a larger budget for the Permanent Building Fund, which covers state and campus capital projects.

One line item in the Permanent Building Fund budget covers $72.9 million in higher ed projects. But JFAC members disagreed about how to spend the money.

One version of the budget contained no money for Boise State. Rep. James Petzke, R-Meridian, proposed a budget that included $17.9 million for the Boise State science research building, which would provide teaching and research labs for chemistry and biology.

Petzke said he tried to carve up the $72.9 million based on enrollment at Idaho’s two- and four-year schools.

“I get a little heartburn when we begin picking favorites among our higher education institutions,” Petzke said.

Supporting Petzke, Sen. Rick Just, D-Boise, castigated budget-writers for trying to zero out Boise State, saying it continues a pattern of “disrespecting” the state’s largest university.

Sen. Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, said the committee needs to give schools the money they need to finish a building project — and if the state carves up the money based on enrollment, smaller schools such as Lewis-Clark State College will never get enough money to complete a project.

Even at $72.9 million, JFAC’s budget pares back Gov. Brad Little’s request. He had recommended $109.9 million for higher ed projects, including $30 million for the Boise State project.

In a statement Tuesday, Boise State lauded JFAC for funding the “much-needed” research building.

“We are committed to working with lawmakers to answer any questions that may arise as this funding bill works its way to the governor’s desk,” spokesman Mike Sharp said.

But if Tuesday’s vote is any indication, the Permanent Building Fund budget could face a bumpy ride.

Petzke’s motion to fund the Boise State project passed by a single vote, but only after Sen. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, changed her vote from no to yes. And the Permanent Building Fund budget still must pass both houses.

Property tax relief package heads to Senate

A fast-moving property tax relief bill is headed to the Senate.

But it did take House members more than an hour to debate House Bill 292 before green-lighting it on a bipartisan 63-7 vote.

Sponsors say HB 292 will provide significant property tax relief — up to $355 million in the first year. And the bill carries major implications for education.

HB 292 would provide schools with some $100 million a year, which they have to put toward property tax relief in some manner. They can use their share of the money to pay off bonds or levies, set it aside for future building projects, or bond against the state’s money.

Rep. Jason Monks, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said he would like to put enough money into the formula that school bond issues become obsolete. The $100 million is just the starting point, said Monks, R-Meridian. “I’d like to get a lot more in there.”

But the money for schools comes with a catch — a recurring theme during Tuesday afternoon’s debate. HB 292 would eliminate the March school election date.

Noting that Idaho schools are seeking $1 billion in bonds and levies in Tuesday’s elections, Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, argued that HB 292 would actually wind up cutting school funding. Even some supporters of the bill, such as Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston, expressed misgivings about dropping the March election date.

But Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee co-chair Rep. Wendy Horman noted the record K-12 budget proposals that came out of the committee Tuesday morning. “We should not need to see supplemental levies in the future,” said Horman, R-Idaho Falls. “Removing the March levy date is a smart move to make.”

Another Idaho Launch bill heads to Senate floor

The debate over Idaho Launch — Gov. Brad Little’s postsecondary incentives bill — will now shift to the Senate floor.

A divided Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee passed a bill that would tweak the controversial program, and a House-passed Idaho Launch bill.

The Idaho Launch “trailer bill” makes a series of changes to the proposed program:

It would allow high school graduates to receive up to $8,000 to pursue in-demand careers, down from an $8,500 cap, and students would have to pay at least 20% of their cost.

High school graduates could use Idaho Launch to attend community college, take career-technical education classes or pursue workforce training. Under the new bill, students wouldn’t be allowed to use Idaho Launch for four-year school, but the Opportunity Scholarship for four-year school would remain intact.

Changes to the proposal aside, the debate was more or less a repeat from previous hearings.

Supporters such as College of Western Idaho President Gordon Jones said the incentives would unlock many in-demand careers for students who can’t afford the training.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hardline lobbying group, said the trailer bill did nothing to fix the program’s basic flaws. “We still think it has the same aroma of cronyism,” said Fred Birnbaum of the Freedom Foundation.

Committee members wrestled with whether to kill the trailer bill, Senate Bill 1167, or to send it on to the floor, where a predecessor awaits. Last week, the committee sent that bill, House Bill 24, to the floor for possible amendments.

On a 5-4 vote, the committee sent SB 1167 to the floor, with a recommendation to pass it. This means the Senate could vote on both bills separately, or work pieces of SB 1167 into an amended HB 24.

Here’s how the committee voted on SB 1167:

Yes: Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls; Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon; Linda Wright Hartgen, R-Twin Falls; James Ruchti, D-Pocatello; Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

No: Dan Foreman, R-Moscow; Todd Lakey, R-Nampa; Brian Lenney, R-Nampa; Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg.

Budget covering costs from U of I slayings heads to Little’s desk

The Senate OK’d a $1 million budget bill to cover some costs stemming from the Nov. 13 slayings of four University of Idaho students.

House Bill 222 is designed to offset some of the U of I’s costs — for increased campus security, expanded counseling and a vigil honoring murder victims Ethan Chapin, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle and Madison Mogen.

“I want there to be a message that’s clear from this body, that we support the University of Idaho,” said Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, urging colleagues to support the bill.

The Senate’s message was not unanimous. Eight Republicans voted against the $1 million bill: Dan Foreman of Moscow; Cindy Carlson of Riggins; Phil Hart of Kellogg; Scott Herndon of Sagle; Brian Lenney of Nampa; Tammy Nichols of Middleton; Chris Trakel of Caldwell; and Glenneda Zuiderfeld of Twin Falls.

The budget bill now goes to Gov. Brad Little, who initially proposed the line item.

JFAC approves a scaled-back charter commission budget

It was a case of message received in JFAC Tuesday morning, as budget-writers downsized their spending plan for the Idaho Public Charter School Commission.

The committee approved a $728,900 budget for the commission, which oversees the bulk of the state’s charter schools.

Missing in this budget is a $96,800-a-year program manager’s position.

The House voted down the charter commission budget Thursday — and opponents said the additional position would simply ramp up regulation of the state’s charter schools.

The rewritten budget, minus the new program manager, passed JFAC unanimously. It now must pass the House and Senate.

House committee introduces revamped community college bill

Another bill reflecting the turmoil at North Idaho College surfaced Tuesday morning.

The revamped legislation outlines a process for the state to assume responsibility over the assets of a defunct community college.

The bill differs from its predecessor by giving responsibility to the board of examiners, rather than the State Board of Education. It also clarifies that the board can only intervene when a college loses accreditation, or ceases operations.

Two related proposals — one governing the emergency authority of the State Board and another over financial support for community colleges — were scheduled to be heard by the committee Tuesday, but the committee ran short on time.

The committee introduced the bill with a split vote.

House passes charter school revolving loan

A bill seeking to support facilities funding for charter schools passed the House Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1043 would create a $50 million revolving loan fund for start-up charter schools to get low-interest facilities loans. It would fund a maximum of four new charters ($10 million) a year. After five years, the fund would begin to regenerate itself.

The bill passed 66-3. Reps. Steve Berch, D-Boise; Ned Burns, D-Bellevue; and John Gannon, D-Boise, voted in opposition.

Military scholarship bill out for possible amendment

The Senate Education Committee voted Tuesday to send House Bill 219 to the amending order, after hearing concerns from Sen. Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell, that the legislation could instate more obstacles for Idaho veterans.

Bill sponsor Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, indicated to the committee he would be willing to consider the suggested amendments.

The committee voted 7-2 to send the bill for an amendment.

Reporter Sadie Dittenber contributed to this report. 

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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