Statehouse roundup, 3.21.22: Higher ed budget sails to Little’s desk

Idaho’s higher education budget sailed through the Senate Monday, likely preventing tuition hikes and boosting employee pay, and marking the first time the Legislature has approved such a budget on the first try since 2019.

Debate ran less than 10 minutes and had a different pitch than the House’s debate last week, when opposition hinged on allegations of leftist indoctrination at Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities.

Only Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking spoke on the bill after sponsor Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, introduced it. Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, supported the budget reluctantly, questioning why a $2.5 million cut made last year in response to indoctrination claims wasn’t directly restored. She also took issue with using the Higher Education Stabilization Fund to help cover costs.

“We’re asking our universities to use rainy-day funds at a time when it’s not raining,” Ward-Engelking said.

The Senate passed House Bill 776 on a 30-5 vote — a wider margin than the House’s 46-22 vote. No dissenting senators explained their opposition.

HB 776 now heads to Gov. Brad Little’s desk, with the chance to send $338 million in general fund money to Boise State University, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College.

That would be a $25 million bump in general fund spending over last year, likely the largest total dollar increase in state history. Combined with federal aid, tuition and other sources, the four-year schools would have around $643 million to spend in 2023.

That would help fund 5% pay raises for college and university employees. Little has called for the pay boosts, but university presidents have said they couldn’t afford raises without financial help from the state or students. Budget writers hope increased state spending will extend tuition freezes at the state’s four-year institutions.

HB 776 survived despite the college and university budgets’ continuing entanglement with conservative concerns about a “social justice agenda” and “critical race theory” in the classroom. Still, a budget for public libraries — which have been drawn into the indoctrination debate this year by a bill that could jail librarians for disseminating “harmful materials” — was skipped over by the House Monday as a new version was written. And talk of indoctrination continues to feature in lawmaker’s discussions about classroom content.

Monday’s silent opposition was comprised of Republican Sens. Regina Bayer, Meridian; Jim Rice, Caldwell; Christy Zito, Hammett; Steve Vick, Dalton Gardens; and Carl Crabtree, Grangeville.

K-12 bonuses head to governor’s desk

The roll call on the bonus bill

K-12 school employees can more or less bank on $1,000 bonuses.

The House OK’d one-time bonuses Monday, sending Senate Bill 1404 to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.

Little proposed the bonuses in the first place — saying the state should show its appreciation to educators for their work during the pandemic.

The bonuses will cost about $36.7 million, with the money coming from federal coronavirus aid.

During Monday’s brief debate, Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, questioned a $1.5 million piece of the proposal: bonuses for school administrators. Instead of handing out bonuses to administrators, she said, the state should put its money into schools or teachers.

Rep. Ben Adams, R-Nampa, also debated against the bonuses. While he said he appreciated teachers’ work during the pandemic, he said the federal aid should instead be used to invest in the future.

The bonuses passed on a 45-24 vote.

JFAC cuts libraries budget

Budget-writers took a $307,000 bite out of the Idaho Commission for Libraries budget Monday.

And they want library officials to make sure K-12 students aren’t exposed to obscene material.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a rewritten libraries budget, after abruptly pulling the first version of the budget off the House floor Friday.

JFAC made two changes:

The committee zeroed out a $307,000 line item for K-12 e-books and audio titles — which Little had requested.

The committee told the Commission for Libraries to make sure K-12 students cannot access obscene material, and make sure library technology projects comply with state and federal internet security law.

The budget now comes to $4.5 million of state general fund money, a 5% increase. It also includes $4.75 million of federal money for tech projects and digital access.

The libraries’ budget must pass both houses.

Senate backs standards rewrite, dyslexia supports

After passing the higher ed budget, the Senate churned through a bevy of other education measures, sending them to Little’s desk.

Standards rewrite. House Bill 716 replacing the state’s existing academic content standards for English, math and science, with new standards passed 34-1.

This bill is an attempt to distance Idaho’s standards — goalposts for what students should learn at certain grade levels — from national standards, including Common Core.

Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, cautioned against the costs of doing so, but supported the bill, as the price tag of adopting new standards and aligning them with the Idaho Standards Achievement Test remain unknown.

HB 716 compliments a resolution already passed by the House and Senate, which strikes Idaho’s existing math, science and English standards from the books.

Only Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, opposed the bill.

Dyslexia supports. A compromise dyslexia bill, meant to increase screenings for dyslexia in students and provide information to educators on how to support students, passed the Senate unanimously.

Scholarship edit. House Bill 505 would axe a state scholarship requirement, which forces students eligible for the Postsecondary Credit Scholarship to earn a matching, merit-based scholarship from a business or industry. Under the bill, students’ matching scholarships wouldn’t have to be merit-based.

WWAMI resolution. A nonbinding resolution dealing with the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho medical school partnership would urge the state to pursue an additional 10 WWAMI seats, adding to the 40 seats Idaho currently pays for.

Trustee recall proposal killed

A bill that would allow voters to replace recalled school board trustees is now dead.

A divided Senate State Affairs Committee killed House Bill 671 with a voice vote Monday morning. HB 671 would have required an election if a trustee was recalled or resigned under threat of a recall. Currently, sitting school board members appoint replacements in both situations.

Co-sponsor Rep. Barbara Ehardt said the bill is meant to bind communities together after “divisive” recall campaigns.

“This is a means of healing and letting the people decide,” Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls.

The bill was stalled after Senators raised several concerns:

  • That individuals who wish to run for a school board could file a recall effort against an incumbent, push the incumbent out, and run for office earlier than they otherwise would have been able to. The bill would allow voters to choose a replacement trustee on one of the state’s four regular election dates in March, May, August or November.
  • That the bill would cede the school board’s authority if too many trustees have resigned or been recalled, making it impossible for the board to have a quorum. In this case, local county commissioners would appoint enough trustees to form a quorum — that’s three of five trustees on most Idaho school boards — until an election can take place. Opposing senators worried these rare cases would run counter to sponsors’ intention of giving local voters more sway.

The bill split Senate GOP leadership. Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, Boise, and Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, Burley, backed the bill. Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee, Fruitland, sided with committee Democrats and other opponents during debate.

House kills career exploration course

A divided House rejected a bill to require an eighth-grade career exploration course.

No one debated against that main purpose of Senate Bill 1374. But opponents didn’t like the fact that the bill could allow school districts to ditch a health course to make space on the schedule for career exploration.

“We need to talk hygiene,” said Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, a certified health instructor.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep, Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, said the language was designed to provide schools options — but he said he’d be “shocked” if any schools decided to get rid of middle school health courses.

“We have to have faith in local school boards,” said Kerby, a retired school superintendent.

The House killed the bill on a 24-45 vote. The bill had passed the Senate unanimously on March 10.

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