Statehouse roundup, 3.25.24: Last-minute bill would rework the Phoenix purchase

(Updated: March 25 at 12:46 p.m., to correct the maximum dollar amount for a proposed tuition tax credit program. The program cap is $70 million.)

A last-minute bill would rework the proposed University of Phoenix purchase — and allow legislators to decide how to spend proceeds from the online university.

On Monday morning, the Senate State Affairs Committee introduced the bill, an attempt to salvage the University of Idaho’s controversial $685 million plan to acquire Phoenix. That vote came after a brief and cryptic discussion that made no reference to Phoenix or the U of I.

The Senate bill — which must pass both houses in the waning days of the 2024 session — overhauls the Phoenix purchase, in several ways:

  • It would scrap the U of I’s plans to create a nonprofit, dubbed Four Three Education, to oversee Phoenix. Some lawmakers have bristled at this plan, saying the nonprofit would be able to operate with limited public oversight. Legislators have also received several legal opinions questioning whether the U of I and the State Board of Education could purchase Phoenix through a nonprofit. The Senate bill would work around this issue by remaking Four Three into “an independent body politic and corporate,” a governmental entity of the Legislature’s making.
  • An 11-member board would oversee Four Three’s operations. Six members would be “independent trustees,” appointed by the State Board of Education. Legislative leaders would appoint two members. The U of I’s president, Four Three’s president and a State Board member would round out the board. Independence of the board, and its affiliation with the U of I, has been a recurring question.
  • Revenues from Phoenix would go into a “Four Three education fund,” which the Legislature could spend at its discretion. U of I officials have long said Phoenix could generate a free flow of revenue — perhaps starting at $10 million a year, and growing over time — that the university could use at its discretion.
  • The bill seeks to limit financial risks if the Phoenix purchase goes south. It would put into law the risks that U of I officials have already spelled out: $9.9 million per year, and a maximum of $50 million. The bill says the state is not obligated to pay Four Three’s debt, and forbids Four Three from seeking state funding.

None of these details came out in committee Monday morning. While many lawmakers have decried the secrecy surrounding the Phoenix purchase — a deal that caught legislators by surprise when it was announced in May — Senate State Affairs members  almost seemed to go out of their way to keep the details of this bill under wraps.

An item on Monday’s agenda referred only to a draft bill “relating to education.” Lawmakers discussed asking Kate Haas, a lobbyist representing Phoenix, to publicly walk through the bill Monday morning, but no one pushed the idea.

Then they briefly talked around the edges of the topic.

“I guess I’m not really comfortable just rushing through this,” said Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise.

“I think this is an effort to solve the problem we’re all aware of,” said Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, the committee’s chairman, without elaborating. “I think we’re all aware of the issue that’s been hanging out there.”

On a party-line vote, the committee introduced the Phoenix bill, which means it could come back for a full hearing. And that could continue the Legislature’s private and public discussion of the Phoenix purchase.

Earlier this month, the House passed a resolution urging the State Board to reconsider the Phoenix purchase, threatening a lawsuit that could delay or kill the purchase. Since then, lawmakers have met behind closed doors with Phoenix, U of I and State Board officials looking for a compromise.

Library bill advances with amendments planned

The latest library bill is heading to the Senate floor, where Republican leaders plan to amend it. 

The Senate State Affairs Committee unanimously voted Monday to send House Bill 710 to the amending order. The full Senate will consider amendments before voting on the bill. 

Potential changes include extending the amount of time a library has to relocate a book before they can be sued for uncapped civil damages. Libraries would have 60 days, rather than 30 days, to relocate a challenged book. 

Another possible change would remove a provision requiring challenged books be moved to an “adults only” section of the library. Instead, the book would have to move to an “age-appropriate” area. 

The amendments “would satisfy some” concerns raised during a public hearing last week, said Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who provided Idaho Education News with a document showing the proposed changes. 

But the bill’s co-sponsors were not on board with altering the “adults-only” provision. “We want to keep that language the same,” said sponsoring Sen. Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins. Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa, is also a sponsor. 

Kathy Griesmyer, government affairs director for the city of Boise, last week pitched the amendments to State Affairs. Even Boise, one of the largest library systems in the state, doesn’t have adults-only sections, Griesmyer said. “It’s something that’s not really feasible from a facility or structure standpoint,” she said. 

The House already approved the bill and would have to concur with any changes the Senate makes. 

House committee runs out a spate of new education bills

The House Ways and Means Committee quickly unveiled a host of late-session bills — many pertaining to education.

Here’s what surfaced Monday morning.

Idaho Launch. The House is taking another run at narrowing down the rules on Launch, a fledgling plan to provide high school graduates with up to $8,000 to continue their education. The bill rewrites the much-debated definition of an in-demand career, which determines whether a college major or job training program qualifies for Launch money.

The Senate has passed its own version of a bill narrowing the definition of an in-demand career.

The House bill would also make several other changes. For example, a Launch receipient would not be able to use the grants to pursue a career requiring an advanced degree. It would also set up a framework for a Launch grant means test.

While lawmakers consider narrowing the Launch program, they are also considering a $70.8 million Launch budget. That budget, passed by the House Thursday, would fund nearly 8,900 grants for this year’s graduating class.

Changes to the facilities bill. A “trailer” bill would make three changes to the omnibus school facilities and income tax reduction bill that cleared the Legislature last week. 

The new bill would repeal language discouraging a switch to a four-day school week, and delay the implementation of a statewide minimum classroom time requirement. 

The current provision says school districts receiving their share of $1 billion from House Bill 521 must attest that they won’t switch to a four-day week “during the period for which” they receive the funds. However, the next sentence says, “If the school district does convert” it must attest that it meets minimum education days and teacher work days that the State Board of Education would set by Aug. 1. 

It’s unclear whether the obscure provision would bar districts from switching to four-day weeks — which most traditional school districts in Idaho have already done. Moyle’s bill would strike that language. Instead, districts must attest that they meet minimum teacher contract days or hours and minimum instructional days or hours. The State Board still would have to set those days or hours by Aug. 1, but the minimums would be implemented by July 1, 2025. 

The Department of Education already enforces minimum instructional hours. Delaying implementation by one year would allow the State Board to further analyze current school schedules, Moyle said. 

The trailer bill also would require Senate approval of the governor’s State Board appointments. Prior to HB 521, State Board members had the authority to select the board’s executive director and president. The facilities bill gave that authority to the governor. 

Moyle’s bill keeps the governor’s appointment authority for the State Board’s executive director but adds “with the advice and consent” of the Senate.

The final proposed change would direct misused facilities money to rural schools. “One of the concerns was our rural schools…that maybe we need to put more money there,” Moyle said. “If somebody cheats or uses the money inappropriately, it’ll be clawed back and sent to those rural districts.”

Senate Republican leadership also introduced a suite of trailer bills for HB 521, which are awaiting a vote by the full Senate. Read about those bills here.

Private school tax credits. A new bill, very similar to legislation that a House committee recently rejected, would allow the full House to vote on private school tax credits less than two months before the primary election. 

“School choice” — a catchall term describing proposals directing taxpayer funds to private education in the form of tax credits, education savings accounts or school vouchers — likely will feature prominently in May’s GOP primary election. But many lawmakers haven’t had an opportunity to stake out their position. 

That’s because previous bills have failed to clear committee. Earlier this month, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee narrowly rejected the most recent proposal, House Bill 447. A new bill from Moyle similarly would create a refundable tax credit for private school tuition but expand the program cap from $50 million to $70 million — $60 million would cover tax credits and $10 million would go toward grants for low-income families. 

Moyle said the bill “probably is not going to go anywhere,” but House members want to vote on a school choice measure. “It’s an issue that’s not going to go away and I want it resolved,” Moyle said. “I want to make it clear that I support school choice.”

Ways and Means’ three Democrats opposed introducing the bill. “This general concept” has been voted on, by House committees and by the Senate, over the last two years, said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel. “It’s just too late right now to introduce something of this explosive potential that has done such damage to budgets and other states,” said Rubel, D-Boise.

Charter school funding. One of Monday’s bills would carve out about $12.2 million for charter schools facilities costs.

Charters already receive some facilities funding. For years, those payments were tied to a complicated formula, and payments would increase or decrease based on the sum of voter-approved bonds and levies for public school facilities.

The House bill would provide charters with $400 per student for facilities — roughly in line with what they have received in recent years. Virtual charters would receive $200 per student.

The Senate passed two similar bills last week.

Critchfield to host post-session meetings with school leaders

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield once again plans to meet with local education leaders to discuss the legislative session.

Critchfield announced six events across the state following the session, which Statehouse leaders plan to wrap-up this week. “We’re eager to cover the changes made this legislative session and dig into the details of how that will play out in their schools and communities,” she said in a news release.  

The schedule is as follows:

  • April 8: Idaho Falls – ISU, Bennion Student Union Building, 1784 Science Center Drive 
  • April 9: Pocatello – ISU, Pond Student Union Building, 1080 S. 5th Avenue  
  • April 10: Twin Falls – CSI, 315 Falls Avenue 
  • April 15: Coeur d’Alene – Coeur d’Alene Resort, 115 S. 2nd Street
  • April 16: Lewiston – LCSC, Williams Conference Center, 801-899 4th Street 
  • April 19: Boise – BSU, Stueckle Sky Center, 1200 W. University Drive
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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