Statehouse roundup, 3.24.22: Idaho House kills library commission budget over ‘obscene materials’

The Idaho House narrowly shot down a budget for the state libraries commission Thursday, decrying kids’ ability to access salacious content in libraries, and complicating the Legislature’s goal of adjourning this week.

Budget writers already rewrote the budget twice, cutting over $300,000 and adding language telling the Idaho Commission for Libraries to make sure K-12 students can’t access obscene materials. But House Republicans — disgruntled that a bill that could jail librarians for disseminating obscene materials to children hasn’t gotten a Senate hearing — shot down the commission budget.

Representatives argued, as they did when they killed a teacher salary budget last year, that rejecting the budget could put pressure on the commission to remove content lawmakers find offensive.

“You think that maybe sending a message doesn’t matter? I guarantee sending a message matters,” Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said.

Reps. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, and Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, voted for House Bill 666 earlier this month, when the bill to open school employees and librarians to criminal charges passed the House. However, they both argued against drawing HB 666 into the budget battle.

Horman said the commission is voluntarily auditing what digital content is in its collection, has already removed two books and is evaluating “gaps” in its policies for what is allowed in its collection. She furthered that HB 666, removing exemptions for libraries from prosecution for disseminating harmful materials to children, wouldn’t even apply to the commission, since it isn’t itself a library.

Chaney and Horman were on the losing side of a 33-36 vote to approve the budget. All 36 dissenters were Republicans.

The vote on HB 824, the library commission budget

The vote left the Legislature in limbo late Thursday afternoon — as the 74th day of the 2022 session lurched to a conclusion.

After the House voted down the libraries budget, Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon promptly announced that the Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee would meet at 4:30 p.m. to take another stab at writing a budget. But 4:30 p.m. came and went without a meeting, and House JFAC co-chair Rick Youngblood said the committee wouldn’t reconvene before Friday.

It’s unclear whether the Legislature would take another run at passing a policy bill, along the lines of HB 666.

Regardless, the Legislature is legally obligated to pass budgets for public agencies, like the libraries commission, before adjourning for the year.

Despite the libraries vote, House Republican leaders remained hopeful that the session could end Friday.

Budget action in both houses …

Both houses quickly passed a flurry of spending bills Thursday, sending them to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.

Teacher incentives. As a bill creating a new rural teacher incentives program awaits a possible signature from Little, both houses passed a bill funding the program.

Senate Bill 1425 would put $775,000 into the program and allow a max of 750 teachers in rural and high-poverty schools to access grants, funding for student loan repayments, postgraduate studies and additional teaching endorsements.

The Senate signed off on a 28-4 vote. Thursday afternoon’s House vote was much tighter; SB 1425 passed on a 39-30 vote.

Career-technical education. House Bill 799 funds career-technical education programs, to the tune of $84.2 million. That’s less than a half percent increase over this fiscal year’s state general fund spending on CTE.

Enrollment-based funding. House Bill 807 covers the $23.5 million cost of funding K-12 schools based on student enrollment numbers, rather than students’ average daily attendance. Idaho has funded schools based on enrollment the past two school years, and a bill that already passed extends that switch through the next two school years.

Career ladder placement. House Bill 805 provides $2 million to fund another bill that the Legislature passed, allowing teachers from out of state and administrators returning to teaching to be paid in accordance with their experience.

Standards rewrite. House Bill 804 provides $375,000 for the state to evaluate whether rewritten academic standards for math, science and English language arts align with the Idaho Standards Achievement Test. The Legislature voted to approve rewritten standards this year in an attempt to shed the academic goalposts’ connection to national Common Core standards. The steeper price of changing the ISAT, if the state has to modify the test to match new standards, remains unknown.

… and budget action in the House …

Late Thursday afternoon, the House passed two other budget bills, which now go to the Senate.

Empowering Parents. House Bill 809 funds the State Board of Education and $50 million worth of “Empowering Parents” grants for families.

Funding for the grants, which would allow families to spend up to $1,000 on education-related expenses like laptops and speech therapy, hit a roadblock Tuesday when the House shot down an appropriations bill for the program. JFAC rewrote the budget later that day, adding extra state funding to cover administration of the program, and eliminating a sticking point for some lawmakers.

The new-look bill passed, 46-22.

Children’s programs. The House also passed the seventh and final K-12 budget for 2022-23, a “children’s programs” budget.

One key line item in House Bill 788: a $46.6 million increase in early reading programs, money schools could spend on all-day kindergarten programs.

There was no debate on the floor, and the bill passed 47-21 — the closest House vote on any of the seven K-12 budgets.

… and more budget action in the Senate …

State Department of Education. The Senate approved the office budget for the State Department of Education. It comes to nearly $51.9 million, and federal coronavirus aid accounts for nearly all of the $11.9 million increase.

Without debate, the Senate passed House Bill 789 on a 31-3 vote, sending it to Little’s desk.

Little signs off on standards rewrite. What’s next?

Little Thursday afternoon signed the bill adopting rewritten math, science and English standards, according to a State Department of Education press release.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra lauded the passage of HB 716 alongside a bipartisan mix of House and Senate education committee members at a press conference the same afternoon.

“I’m just elated,” she told EdNews afterward, arguing the new standards are more streamlined while maintaining the rigor of existing standards.

“We’re going to continue to make sure that they reflect Idaho values,” she added.

The new standards will kick in over the summer, before the 2022-23 school year. In the meantime, Ybarra’s SDE will begin the months-long process of reviewing the standards’ alignment with the ISAT. Ybarra told EdNews it’s too early to tell whether the ISAT will need to be reworked to line up with the new standards. She estimated reworking the test would cost anywhere from “$10 million to upwards of $55 million” over three years.

It’s not immediately clear how big the final price tag will be, and it will depend on the results of the SDE’s alignment study. The state test must match up with state standards to satisfy federal requirements.

“Nobody wants to take a test about something they’ve not learned, so that’ll be one of the main focuses moving forward,” Ybarra said.

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