Statehouse roundup, 2.23.24: House approves sweeping school facilities plan

House members overwhelmingly voted in favor of a plan to spend $2 billion on schools, primarily for facility upgrades, over the next decade. But many questioned whether the money would be fairly distributed.

House Republicans unanimously endorsed the legislation crafted by Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s office along with House GOP leadership. Six Democrats opposed it — all from Boise, the sole district that would have its share of the funds capped.

Some supportive Republicans also panned the division of funds. “It appears to me when you read down through all the numbers…that we’re abandoning rural school districts,” said Rep. Rick Cheatum, R-Pocatello, who ultimately gave the bill a green light.

Under House Bill 521, the state would bond for $1 billion, which would be divided between Idaho’s 116 school districts based on the same attendance-weighted formula that dishes out K-12 funding each year.

Districts could take the money in a lump sum or incrementally over the next decade. Supporters say the state funds will help reduce the need for districts to seek locally supported bonds and levies.

“That is some immediate money that they’re able to use for some of their facility needs,” said House Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Meridian, who’s co-sponsoring the bill.

Estimates show by-district shares vary widely. The smallest, single-school districts could get $25,000 while the state’s largest district, West Ada, might get $140 million. Salmon schools —which are among the most cited examples of crumbling school infrastructure — may see $2.6 million.

“That won’t build a school,” Cheatum said. “They barely have enough to repair what they have, and they need far more than that.”

To see a breakdown of the by-district estimates, click here.

The bill also would add an estimated $250 million over 10 years to sales tax revenue that currently helps districts pay off bonds and levies. And it would cut Idaho’s flat income tax rate from 5.8% to 5.695%.

Altogether, the bill would represent roughly $1.5 billion in new spending on schools over the next decade while another $500 million would be diverted from an existing lottery revenue funds.

The $200 million total annual spending breaks down this way:

  • $125 million in sales tax revenue leveraged for a new school district facilities bond fund.
  • $50 million in lottery revenue redirected to the existing school district facilities fund.
  • $25 million in sales tax revenue added to the existing school district facilities fund.

But school leaders have to make several concessions to qualify. Districts on a four-day school week, for instance, must meet a to-be-determined minimum of instructional days. That could mean districts have to go back to five-day weeks.

Rep. Dan Garner, R-Clifton, said he was “greatly” concerned by the four-day week provision but ultimately supported the bill. “I will just encourage those involved that we leave the discretion of how the kids are educated and what they can do to the local districts,” he said.

The funding formula has one carve-out that only would affect the Boise School District. It creates a $40 million cap on shares for districts established prior to statehood that don’t need voter approval for certain tax increases.

House Assistant Minority Leader Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, said the “targeted” provision “arbitrarily” cut in half Boise’s share of the facilities funding. Six of the House’s 10 Boise representatives opposed the bill, with one being absent.

One Boise Democrat took an alternative stance against the bill. Rep. Steve Berch argued that Idaho is taking billions in sales tax exemptions off the table each year, which could fund school facilities.

Some goods and services, from farming equipment to data centers, are excluded from state sales tax requirements. Idaho has granted $47.6 billion worth of exemptions since 2012. If a review of current exemptions — some in place since the 1960s — found 20% were no longer justified, the state would have an additional $1 billion every year, Berch said.

“We’d have the $2 billion for school facilities in two years, without having to borrow money,” he said. “It’s time to take a broader perspective when it comes to funding public education.”

HB 521 now heads to the Senate.

Budget committee advances bill to fully fund Launch

The Legislature’s budget committee voted Friday to fully fund Gov. Brad Little’s recommendation for Idaho Launch

On a 16-4 vote, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee advanced a $70.8 million line item for the workforce training grants. The money would go to the Workforce Development Council, the state agency that administers the grants. 

The Friday vote is the first hurdle for the program that’s been popular among students but has plenty of naysayers in the Legislature. The latter includes House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, who has the authority to block the Launch funding from coming to the House floor. 

The next moves for the Launch funding bill are unpredictable, according to Kevin Richert’s analysis.

Through the program, enacted last year, Idaho high school students can claim up to $8,000 for in-demand career training, from welding to computer programming. So far, more than 13,000 students have applied. The $70.8 million request would fund maximum grants for 8,850 of those applicants. 

JFAC approved the line-item request with no discussion. The “no” votes were: 

  • Sen. Ben Adams, R-Nampa
  • Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle
  • Rep. Tina Lambert, R-Caldwell
  • Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, who co-chairs the budget committee, said leaders have yet to decide whether the Launch funding bill will start in the House or the Senate. 

New bill to create State Board regions introduced

The House Education Committee on Friday introduced a replacement for a prior bill that would create regional appointments to the State Board of Education. 

The new version only altered the geographic regions to make contiguous borders, said sponsoring Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg. The seven regions would include the following legislative districts

  • Region 1: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Region 2: 6, 7, 8, 9, 14
  • Region 3: 10, 11, 12, 13, 20
  • Region 4: 15, 16, 17, 21, 22
  • Region 5: 18, 19, 23, 24, 25
  • Region 6: 26, 27, 28, 29, 30
  • Region 7: 31, 32, 33, 34, 35

Under the bill, the governor would continue to appoint board members but each appointee would have to be a resident of one of the regions. The bill would assign current board members a region — not necessarily related to their residency — and allow them to finish their terms. Subsequent appointments would have to abide by the geographic requirements. State Board members serve five-year terms.

Historically, there’s been an “informal understanding” that the board would have statewide representation, but there have been “ebbs and flows” in following that standard, Raybould said during a hearing on the previous version of the bill.

Ryan Suppe

Ryan Suppe

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business for newspapers in the Treasure Valley and Eastern Idaho. A Nevada native, Ryan enjoys golf, skiing and movies. Follow him on Twitter: @ryansuppe. Contact him at [email protected]

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