On day 82 of the 2023 legislative session, Idaho lawmakers are closing up shop — at least until next week.
The Senate wrapped up business around noon on Friday, leaving the House to mill around the Statehouse until just shy of 2 p.m., when House Speaker Mike Moyle confirmed the chamber’s recess.
“You can all stay here while the rest of us are leaving,” Moyle joked to a few lawmakers who playfully objected to the motion.
But the session isn’t quite over yet. Gov. Brad Little still has time to dole out any late-session vetoes. The House and Senate will return to take any final action on April 6.
With any luck, the 2023 Legislature will adjourn sine die next week.
Library bill heads to governor’s desk after contentious debate
After a contentious House debate, a bill restricting “harmful” materials in school and public librarians is headed to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.
Friday morning’s 42-26 House vote came barely 12 hours after the Senate voted for the libraries bill Thursday evening. It also was one of the last big votes of the 2023 legislative session, which is expected to essentially wrap up Friday.
Dubbed the “Children’s School and Library Protection Act,” House Bill 314 prohibits libraries from distributing any material “harmful to minors.” School or public libraries that violate the ban could be subject to a $2,500 civil fine.
“This legislation is all about reasonable steps to restrict the access,” said Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa, one of the HB 314’s co-sponsors.
Supporters said HB 314 would protect children from materials and images that will cause lasting damage.
“Once that picture is there, once that thought is there, it is very difficult to rid that from a child,” said Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls.
Critics questioned what constitutes a harmful material. Despite Crane’s assurance that the bill protects materials that have literary and culture value, Rep. Ilana Rubel was unconvinced. She pointed to language in the bill restricting material that has the effect of “substantially arousing sexual desires” in a minor.
“It doesn’t take much to arouse the sexual desire of a 15-year-old,” said Rubel, D-Boise. “It might be a Sears catalog.”
The debate turned tense. After Rep. Ned Burns, D-Bellevue, said the bill was so broadly written that it could restrict the Bible, Ehardt and Rep. Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood, said they resented the suggestion that the Bible contained pornography.
Visibly angry, Burns stood up to object. “I did not impugn the Bible and I take great offense to that.”
In the middle of the tense exchange, House Speaker Mike Moyle paused the debate, ushering lawmakers into his office for a closed-door discussion.
“We had a good visit,” Moyle, R-Star, told colleagues as the debate resumed. “We’re all happy.”
But the debate was tense from the outset — reflecting the session-long controversy surrounding the libraries issue.
House Education Committee chair Julie Yamamoto, fired back at critics who have singled her out for opposing HB 314. She challenged the “false dichotomy” in the debate — and the accusation that bill opponents want children to have access to porn.
“Let it be heard loud and clear, I don’t want pornography in the hands of children,” said Yamamoto, R-Caldwell.
HB 314 now will go to Little’s desk. Depending on when the bill reaches his desk, he will have five working days — not counting Sunday — to act on it.
This is the second consecutive session that has ended with a contentious libraries issue. In March 2023, lawmakers cut $3.5 million from the Idaho Commission on Libraries budget — the culmination of a prolonged debate over library materials.
Friday’s vote on HB 314 came as lawmakers wrapped up the final bills on their calendar — finishing their work for the 2023 session. The Senate recessed shortly after noon Friday, and the House is likely to recess later Friday. Both houses are likely to return briefly Thursday, for a final session that would give them the option of trying to override any gubernatorial vetoes.
State Board budget survives a bumpy ride through both houses
In its final education-related budget vote, the Legislature approved a $41.3 million budget for the State Board of Education Friday morning.
Senate Bill 1202 funds two supplemental line items — $1 million for arts grants for rural schools and $20 million for school safety and security grants. It also funds an additional 13 full-time positions at the State Board.
And the budget follows through on another of Gov. Brad Little’s promises: making the Empowering Parents grant program permanent with $30 million in state funding.
In total, the budget marks a 338.6% increase in general fund allocations from the previous year — a hard pill to swallow for some senators.
“This is another example of bureaucratic expansion and growth that is just becoming way too costly for our state,” said Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, as she explained her vote against the budget. She described the multimillion dollar budget as “death by a thousand cuts.”
And Sen. Carl Bjerke, R-Coeur d’Alene, opposed SB 1202 over a drag show held at North Idaho College — the Coeur d’Alene-based community college under threat of accreditation loss — and other activities in schools that Bjerke categorized as part of the “culture war.”
Bjerke said he’s heard from constituents who are pulling their kids out of NIC because of the drag show.
“We need to get back to what education is supposed to be about,” Bjerke said Friday.
The North Idaho senator’s debate comes on a significant day for NIC — the March 31 deadline for the school to submit a report demonstrating why it should keep its accreditation. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities asked NIC to address a number of concerns, including a swirl of administrative shuffles, declining enrollment and donor support, and a “continued exodus” of faculty and staff.
Over senators’ objections, the State Board spending bill passed 21-12. Then it hit even more trouble in the House — after brief debate.
Only one lawmaker spoke against the bill. Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, said he opposed sinking state money into continuing Empowering Parents, and bankrolling computers and devices the state doesn’t really control.
The bill’s floor sponsor, Rep. James Petzke, R-Meridian, said the federally funded Empowering Parents grants have been “wildly popular,” and urged lawmakers to keep the program going.
The vote was a cliffhanger.
For several seconds, it appeared that a majority of House members would reject the budget — a move that would have forced the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to rewrite the spending plan, prolonging the 82-day session.
“People better change their votes, or we will be here tomorrow,” House Speaker Mike Moyle said from the speaker’s lecturn.
Enough lawmakers flipped their vote to pass the budget on a 33-29 vote.
After the vote, Rep. Steve Berch rose to rebuke Moyle. “That had to be the most unprofessional comment to make to this body,” said Berch, D-Boise. “I’m just flabbergasted.”
“Your criticism is well taken,” said Moyle, R-Star.
Final Idaho Launch bills head to governor
During the Legislature’s marathon floor sessions Thursday, the House also put the finishing touches on the “Idaho Launch” postsecondary incentives program.
The House passed Senate Bill 1167, which tightens up Gov. Brad Little’s campaign to steer high school graduates toward in-demand careers. Students will be able to receive up to $8,000 for tuition and fees for community college or workforce training. Students must pay at least 20% of their education costs. The bill passed, 51-16.
The House also passed a spending bill, Senate Bill 1212, which provides the Workforce Development Council with $5 million to cover program costs. It passed by a narrower 37-30 margin.
Both bills now go to Gov. Brad Little, who proposed the Idaho Launch initiative at the start of the 2023 session.