Statehouse roundup, 3.17.20: House breaks deadlock on higher ed budget

The House and the Senate worked Tuesday on budget bills — and cleared a major obstacle to wrapping up the 2020 legislative session.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House finally passed a higher education budget — after killing two previous versions of the budget, one as recently as Monday.

The Senate moved quickly, passing the bulk of the public schools budget without debate.

After a lengthy debate, the House barely passed a budget for state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s office — a spending plan that sailed through the Senate unanimously Monday.

And while K-12 and higher ed receive more than half of the state’s budget, the houses still have to pass a laundry list of other agency budgets. The House killed yet another agency budget Tuesday, for the State Tax Commission, putting up another obstacle on the path to adjournment.

Higher education budget

The debate illustrated deep divisions in the House — and some impatience in the House chambers.

“I thought we had authority to set budgets,” said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, admonishing the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to dig deeper to find ways to cut costs. “I’m looking for ways to cut the budget.”

Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, criticized House members for underfunding higher education for years.

“I’m a little embarrassed by (this budget),” said Wintrow, a JFAC member. “But it’s all we can pass.”

Two JFAC Republicans — floor sponsor Paul Amador of Coeur d’Alene and vice chair Wendy Horman of Idaho Falls — also led the push for the third version of the budget.

“What are we sending a message to and who are we sending a message to?” said Amador. “What sort of message are we sending to the students in Idaho?”

The budget was about $750,000 smaller than the spending plan that failed Monday. It exceeds Little’s request by $531,000, providing a funding boost for Lewis-Clark State College. The money is designed to help Lewis-Clark offer career-technical courses — which could be a growing need during an economic downturn, Amador said.

“They are in a unique situation,” said Horman, noting that Lewis-Clark doesn’t get research money the state’s four-year universities receive, and doesn’t get the local property taxes Idaho’s community colleges receive.

All told, the budget bill would provide nearly $629 million to Boise State University, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College. Higher ed would receive about $307 million from Idaho’s general fund budget, a 0.3 percent increase.

With Tuesday’s 43-26 vote, a higher ed budget now goes to the Senate.

K-12 budgets

On Tuesday morning, it took the Senate 35 minutes to pass six K-12 budgets and spend about $1.8 billion.

The six bills account for the vast majority of the overall K-12 budget. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has proposed a 4.1 percent increase for K-12, translating to nearly $79 million in new money.

Included within these budgets are some key line items:

  • $24 million to align salaries under the career ladder, the state’s 2015 teacher pay plan. Another $6 million would increase the minimum teacher salary to $40,000.
  • $11.5 million to cover projected enrollment growth.
  • $7.4 million to help cover health insurance costs.
  • $26.1 million for Idaho’s K-3 literacy initiative.
  • $20 million for the advanced opportunities program, a $2 million increase.
  • $1 million for professional development that districts and charters could use toward training or resources to support social-emotional learning.

The six bills passed with no debate and little dissent. Three passed unanimously, two passed on a 33-1 vote and the sixth passed on a 32-2 vote (Sens. Regina Bayer, R-Meridian, and Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, voted no).

Minutes later, the Senate moved quickly on another piece of the education budget: a “trailer” spending bill, in Statehouse lingo. This bill earmarks $8.3 million to fund the next phase of the career ladder — Little’s five-year, $223 million rollout to increase veteran teacher salaries. This budget passed 31-1, with Bayer dissenting.

This means that the Legislature’s work on the K-12 budget is nearly complete. The House has already passed the seven budget bills that the Senate OK’d Tuesday, so they all go to Little’s desk.

One K-12 budget bill is still in the queue. A $102.2 million school administration budget still needs to pass both houses.

SDE office budget

After nearly an hour-long debate, a divided House passed the budget for Ybarra’s State Department of Education.

Senate Bill 1410 would provide almost $12.7 million for Ybarra’s office budget, a decrease of 19.3 percent, or about $3 million.

The main sticking point for the budget was a tug-of-war over data management responsibilities — and friction between the budget-setting role of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and the policy-setting role of the House Education Committee.

In setting the budget March 3, JFAC members moved data management and IT responsibilities from the State Department of Education to the State Board of Education. In conjunction with that move, JFAC took 18 full-time positions and $2.7 million away from the SDE and gave it to the State Board.

Rep. Wendy Horman, an Idaho Falls Republican who serves as a vice chair of JFAC, said the move is a simple management change designed to put all data responsibilities under the State Board’s umbrella.

But House Education Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said JFAC may have overstepped its budget-setting role by making a policy change.

“I believe these bills cross the lines of budget and policy,” Clow said.

Clow said JFAC doesn’t take public testimony on its bills, so policy changes should be reserved for policy-setting committees such as House Education, which can accept public testimony.

“Without  that input, without those public hearings, we cannot properly determine if it is proper policy,” Clow said.

Horman defended the shift and JFAC’s action.

“The very fact that no laws needed to be changed for us to do this is proof itself there was no germane policy line to cross,” Horman said.

Several other JFAC members supported the budget. Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, said moving K-12 data under the State Board makes sense because the State Board already oversees higher education data.

“It just makes sense. Why would we keep data in two separate locations?” Amador asked.

Clow previously introduced a bill intended to block the change, but held House Bill 625 in committee last week. Technically, Clow could reconvene House Education and call up HB 625 if he wanted to continue to fight the issue.

The ISEE data management change is scheduled to occur July 1, the first day of Idaho’s new fiscal year.

Following a lengthy debate, the House voted 40-30 to pass SB 1410. The budget bill heads next to Gov. Brad Little’s desk for final consideration. It passed the Senate unanimously Monday.

Master educator premium phaseout

The Senate Education Committee made short work of what might be its last bit of unfinished business.

It took the committee less than 10 minutes Tuesday morning to sign off on a bill to phase out Idaho’s master educator premium.

House Bill 624 would continue the payments for the 1,300 veteran teachers who qualified for the premiums last year. Teachers could still apply for the premiums this year. But after that, the state would phase out the program — and the bonuses, worth $4,000 a year for three years.

The master educator premium is no longer needed, said Greg Wilson, Little’s education adviser. That’s because of Little’s House Bill 523, which spells out the five-year plan for pay raises for veteran teachers.

HB 523 and HB 624 have both passed the House. If the bills pass the Senate, they go to Little’s desk.

Tuesday’s brief Senate Education meeting, likely the committee’s final meeting for 2020, was punctuated by formalities: a farewell to the committee’s student page, farewells to retiring Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.

Academic standards

The debate over academic standards will continue into the summer.

During a flurry of activity Tuesday afternoon, the House passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 132. The resolution authorizes the Legislature to create an interim committee to “complete a study of the Idaho Content Standards and to consider and recommend new content standards for Idaho schools.”

The resolution arrives amid several years’ worth of debates over academic standards at the Statehouse. Earlier this year, the House Education Committee voted to repeal all academic standards in math, English and science. But the Senate Education Committee later overruled it and approved the standards.

In four of the previous five legislative sessions, the House has held divisive hearings over science standards, which the Senate Education Committee approved in full in 2018.

House Education Chairman Lance Clow said the interim committee would allow the Legislature to get ahead of the standards rulemaking process by studying the standards and recommending news standards over the interim.

“It’s an opportunity to for the Legislature to weigh in before they end up coming to us in administrative rule,” Clow said.

Without any serious debate, the House voted 57-9 to pass  SCR 132. The resolution previously passed the Senate 31-3 on Feb. 12.

Teacher certification

Working into the evening, the Senate quickly and unanimously passed a bill that would ease teacher certification requirements.

House Bill 599 would cover graduates from nonpublic teaching schools — private schools and nontraditional programs such as the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence and Teach for America.

Graduates from a nonpublic program can receive a teaching certificate if they obtain a bachelor’s degree, pass a criminal background check and pass content and pedagogical training that aligns with state academic standards. While supporters say the bill would address ABCTE’s struggles to meet state requirements, they also see it as a step to relax certification rules statewide.

The bill now goes to Little’s desk.

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