Statehouse roundup, 3.14.24: JFAC passes higher ed budget, while K-12 fix is on hold

Budget-writers put nearly $16 million into higher education Thursday — with some brief debate about roles and overlap.

The budget numbers themselves went through quickly, and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved them unanimously.

Here’s how the line items break down:

  • An additional $7.8 million for pay raises — specifically, 2% merit raises at Idaho’s four-year schools. The bulk of this money, $5.4 million, would come from tax revenues, but the schools would need to use tuition and fees to cover the rest.
  • Nearly $7 million in “occupational capacity enhancement” money that the schools can use at their discretion. This money would go toward pay raises at Boise State University and Lewis-Clark State College, University of Idaho cybersecurity programs, and student retention programs at Idaho State University, among other items.
  • Slightly more than $1 million in additional endowment money.
  • A $569,000 line item to cover enrollment growth at U of I, Idaho State and Lewis-Clark.

But for the U of I, the money comes with some strings — which JFAC attached on the fly.

The committee banned the U of I from using its share of discretionary money for “nursing or physician assistant programs” offered at other two- and four-year schools.

The U of I has said it hopes to spend $1.3 million on new health care programs, which could include nursing and physician assistant programs.

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, led the push to restrict U of I’s spending. He said he was concerned that the U of I and Lewis-Clark would wind up competing for nursing faculty — and the U of I would price Lewis-Clark out of the market.

“This would cover concerns … for this year,” said Herndon, who added that legislators could revisit the issue in 2025.

Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, cast the lone vote against the restrictions, citing the state’s shortage of health care workers.

“The demand exceeds the (classroom) seats that are available,” he said.

The U of I did not respond to a request for comment Thursday on the committee’s action.

The higher ed budget, including the restrictions, must now pass the House and Senate.

Senate committee endorses notice requirement for high-cost state purchases

State agencies, offices and institutions would have to give the Legislature notice before making high-dollar purchases under a bill heading to the Senate. 

House Bill 691 doesn’t explicitly reference the University of Idaho’s $685 million bid to acquire the University of Phoenix, but the implication is clear. The legislation would require agencies to publicize a potential deal worth more than $25 million, at least a month before it’s finalized. 

Agencies would have to email notice to legislators and news reporters registered with the Capitol Correspondents Association. And notice would have to appear in the local newspaper based where the project is planned. 

The Senate State Affairs Committee unanimously voted Thursday to advance the bill. But not without some questions. 

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder wondered whether there would be an exemption for agencies that have non-disclosure agreements with contracting parties — or whether negotiations would be protected from the disclosure requirement. 

Co-sponsoring Reps. John Gannon, D-Boise, and Chris Allgood, R-Caldwell, gave conflicting answers. Gannon later provided Idaho Education News a clarification: Agencies with non-disclosure agreements would not be exempt from publicizing a potential deal, however, they would not have to file a notice when simply negotiating. 

A standardized notice form, included in the bill, would include only the names of the parties intending to sign a contract along with brief descriptions of the project and where it would be located. 

“A non-disclosure agreement usually applies to a lot of the details, like financing or the solvency of the other party and that kind of stuff,” Gannon said. “The form does not say you have to give a copy of the contract.”

Winder, R-Boise, told EdNews that state agencies often enter non-disclosure agreements in the course of attracting business to Idaho. “There are times when that’s important…and I don’t think that we should try to get rid of that opportunity.” 

But Winder was ultimately satisfied, supporting the bill moving forward. It provides a “pretty significant threshold” for requiring notice but there’s no real recourse, holding agencies “somewhat harmless,” he said. “All you have to do is tell people you’re doing it.”

Gannon told the committee that the bill sponsors received “many different” project thresholds before settling on $25 million. Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members recommended $5 million while others proposed $50 million, he said. 

State Board of Education members suggested the proposed requirements would apply to one or two purchases per year, Gannon said, and other state agency officials doubted it would apply to any of their business. 

“This is designed to … fill that space where legal notification isn’t being made in a timely manner, or what one would consider to be a timely matter,” Gannon said.

Debate on student pronouns bill paused due to concerns for sponsor’s health

A bill that would bar teachers from using transgender students’ preferred pronouns is on hold, after House leaders paused the debate over health concerns for the sponsor. 

During a speech introducing his bill, Rep. Ted Hill, R-Eagle, stumbled over some words while appearing out of breath and restless. After Hill completed his opening remarks, House Speaker Mike Moyle stopped the floor session and returned about 10 minutes later. 

Moyle, R-Star, announced that “out of abundance of caution” House leadership decided to ensure Hill was OK. Moyle later told Idaho Education News that he suggested Hill seek medical attention. 

“I thought he ought to get checked out,” Moyle said. “No big deal, just (to) make sure he’s all right. He seemed to be.” 

House Bill 538 has been on the House calendar for roughly three weeks, but a floor debate has been pushed back repeatedly.

K-12 supplemental budget on hold, for now

Budget-writers were scheduled to take up a big budget line item for K-12 Thursday, but didn’t.

At issue, still, is money designed to fully fund K-12 for this school year.

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield has been pushing for $162 million for K-12 for the rest of the school year — and the budget year, which ends June 30.

The money is designed to plug a budget gap that came open in 2023, when the state shifted from enrollment-based funding to a model based on lower attendance numbers. That shift has left a chunk of K-12 dollars in limbo, because the state cannot send it out to schools.

The K-12 supplemental budget was on JFAC’s Thursday agenda, but was pulled off the agenda, at least for now. Committee members are still working on details of this budget, said Rep, Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a JFAC co-chair.

Committee advances bill barring Planned Parenthood from providing sex ed material 

A bill that would bar abortion providers from furnishing schools with sex education materials is heading to the Senate floor. 

The legislation, from Idaho Chooses Life, is designed to block Planned Parenthood-linked curriculum, but much of Thursday’s committee hearing focused on whether other health care providers might be caught in the bill’s net. 

House Bill 666 says public schools can’t allow an organization “that is a provider of abortion” to furnish sex education material. Abortion is mostly banned in Idaho, except in cases when the mother’s life is in danger or the pregnancy was the result of incest or rape. 

David Ripley, executive director for Idaho Chooses Life, said a health care institution that provides abortion stemming from one of those exceptions “does not become an abortion provider, as commonly understood … organizations that are, in fact, promoting, providing abortions as their primary mission.”

In a testy exchange, Sen. James Ruchti pressed Ripley to explain how the “plain language” of the bill would exclude health care providers, like St. Luke’s Health System. “I don’t see the words ‘as their primary mission,’ I don’t see the words ‘save a mother’s life,’” said Ruchti, D-Pocatello. 

Ripley responded, “I think I’ve made myself clear on the point.” 

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted along party lines to send the bill to the Senate floor, recommending that it pass. The House already endorsed the proposal. 

Bill updating school board recall, quorum rules heads to Senate

The Senate State Affairs Committee also advanced a bill to redefine school board quorums as the majority of seated members, rather than total board seats.

House Bill 645 also would clarify that a board vacancy is official when a county commission certifies a recall election, and bar recalled trustees from voting on board contracts between a recall election day and the county’s election certification.

Blocking elected board members from voting, however briefly, was a deal-breaker for Sen. Ben Toews, who made an unsuccessful motion to send the bill to the amending procedure on the Senate floor. “It’s unprecedented that we take away the powers of duly elected officials to do really important business, the most important business,” said Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene. 

The bill, from Rep. Mark Sauter, R-Sandpoint, addresses a controversy from the West Bonner School District last year when recalled trustees tried to hold a special meeting to consider contracts before the recall election was certified. 

State Affairs endorsed the bill on a 6-2 vote, sending it to the Senate floor.

School board public comment bill goes to governor

The House passed a bill that would require school boards to take in-person public comment.

Senate Bill 1361 would require boards to “hear public comment, if offered by a member of the public, prior to taking action on an agenda item.”

After brief floor debate, the House passed the bill 60-8, with Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, joining seven Democrats in opposition.

The bill, which already passed the Senate unanimously, now goes to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.


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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