The rules of engagement, Statehouse style

 

 

Before the bills, first come the rules.

By and large, legislative committees spend the opening weeks of the session sifting through state agency rules. Many are approved with little debate and no disagreement. Occasionally, a rule runs afoul of a committee — and is either rejected or reworked.

Thursday afternoon offered a microcosm of this process, as the Senate Education Committee started working its way through this year’s 116-page docket of rules.

Four State Board of Education rules were approved unanimously. One got a rewrite.

This rule proposed a series of fixes to Idaho’s Opportunity Scholarship. The college scholarship is based largely on financial need, but recipients must have a high school GPA of 3.0 or better.

But the State Board uses an unweighted GPA. In other words, students don’t receive any bonus points for taking Advanced Placement classes. Republican and Democratic committee members questioned this wording — as did Troy Rohn, a Boise school board member who testified on the rule.

The Boise district has worked to add rigor into its high school offerings, Rohn told senators. In 2015, Boise students took 3,668 AP tests. “We ought to be rewarding these students,” he said.

Senators agreed. They voted unanimously to approve most of the fixes to the Opportunity Scholarship rule, but deleted references to an unweighted GPA.

Committees generally work on rules review during the first few weeks of the session — before the committees have many bills in the pipeline.

Thayn New
Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett

And Senate Education Vice Chairman Steven Thayn said he wanted to give the committee an easy start in the rule-making process Thursday, by picking out a group of simpler rules. For the most part, things went according to plan, at least for the four other rules on the afternoon’s agenda.

When agency rules are enacted, they carry the force of state law. But agency rules need only clear a low bar; if one of the two education committees passes a rule, it’s on the books. Rules don’t go to the House or Senate floor for a vote. And that’s why, for example, the Legislature never held a full vote on Idaho’s version of Common Core standards; the education committees approved the standards by rule in 2011.

But even this modest level of review is unusual, Thayn reminded committee members Thursday. Congress does not review federal rules, and some state legislatures have no authority over rules.

“This is a great privilege that we have here,” Thayn said. “View this with joy that we’re going over rules.”

Joyful or no, the process will continue Monday, with the House and Senate education committees expected to take up rules.