‘Hope springs eternal:’ Little acknowledges Statehouse pushback over Launch

If legislators cut Idaho Launch funding, they will do so at their peril, Gov. Brad Little said Tuesday.

The new program — which would provide high school graduates with up to $8,000 for college or job training — is popular with students and parents, with teachers and counselors, and with business owners seeking skilled labor. But as he touted the public support for Launch, Little acknowledged that his pet postsecondary program faces considerable resistance in the Legislature.

And when asked about getting Launch funded this session, Little was coy. “Hope springs eternal.”

Launch was a recurring topic Tuesday morning, as Little fielded questions during an Idaho Press Club breakfast. And Launch could be one of the most contentious topics of the 2024 legislative session, now in its sixth week.

Launch’s lead legislative sponsor, Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, was demoted from House leadership in a historic midsession ouster, after a public feud over the Legislature’s reworked budgeting process. Under the new approach, supported by House Speaker Mike Moyle and the rest of the GOP leadership team, budgets for items like Launch will appear in followup spending bills.

But there’s no guarantee these spending bills will come up for a vote. Moyle, an ardent Launch opponent, could kill its budget by refusing to bring it up for a vote.

Little said he has “not specifically” sought an assurance from Moyle that a Launch budget would get a vote. “He knows it’s a priority for me.”

During an hour-long question-and-answer session with reporters Tuesday, Little discussed several education topics:

School facilities. Little also acknowledged that he made some concessions before his $2 billion plan to fund school facilities debuted last week. 

While he declined to name specific allowances, Little signaled that eliminating the August school election date wasn’t his idea. That’s the cost for school districts to get a share of $200 million annually in state aid for construction costs.

Little said education leaders were willing to give up August — their least used election opportunity for levy and bond measures — but narrowing the election window makes it “tougher” to reach the required two-thirds support to pass a bond.

And Little said he’d be surprised if lawmakers supported a proposal to amend the state constitution and lower the supermajority threshold. 

“That’s why we’re putting this facilities money in there,” he said. Bond measures “will be tempered by that money that we’re bonding for at the state level.” 

Little touted Montana’s school bond election parameters, which vary the approval threshold based on voter turnout. For instance, if 40% or more of qualified voters weigh in on a bond measure, it only needs a simple majority for approval. If 30% to 40% of voters show up, then the measure needs 60% support to pass. Thirty percent or less turnout means the measure automatically fails. 

“That would help quite a bit,” Little said. 

Little’s House Bill 521, co-sponsored by Moyle, also would cut income taxes and strengthen the governor’s authority over the State Board of Education, allowing him or her to appoint the board’s director and president. 

The Idaho Constitution forbids legislation from addressing multiple subjects, but Little brushed aside a question about whether his bill would run afoul of that provision. 

A three-paragraph legislative intent at the top of HB 521 is “the golden thread that ties everything together,” he said, adding that the constitution’s single-subject rule “almost always gets stretched in the Legislature.”

University of Phoenix. Little offered an extremely rosy view of the Phoenix purchase — which, according to University of Idaho officials, could yield at least $10 million in annual revenue.

“The upside is $100 million a year,” Little said. “And even if it’s not $100 million a year, the upside is we’ve got a platform, a well tried-and-true platform.”

Purchasing Phoenix — a for-profit online school with a checkered past — will provide Idaho with technology that could accelerate online learning, Little said. The State Board has been working to expand online higher education in Idaho, he said, “(but) what’s been happening has not been working.”

And Little reiterated claims from U of I officials, saying the state’s risk from the $685 million Phoenix purchase would be capped at $10 million a year.

Libraries. Little said he could be “warmer” to the latest proposal to restrict minors’ access to library materials after vetoing a similar bill last year. 

The Senate State Affairs Committee advanced a bill Monday to create a standardized, statewide process for addressing library book challenges. School districts and public library boards would have to create a committee that reviews formal book challenges in public hearings. 

The bill also would create a $250 statutory penalty for giving a minor “harmful material” along with the potential for uncapped civil damages. 

Last year, Little vetoed House Bill 314, which would have allowed parents to seek $2,500 fines against libraries for distributing material that’s “harmful to minors.” Little called it a “bounty system” that could overload small libraries with high costs and force them to close to minors altogether. 

Little told reporters Tuesday that he hasn’t closely read the new bill. Based on what he’s been told about it, Senate Bill 1289 “doesn’t address all my concerns, but addresses the major one,” Little said. “As long as it doesn’t break the back of those small libraries, I’ll be much warmer than I was to that last year.”

“If you break these small libraries, where you can’t get volunteers to work there, that is a huge problem,” he said. “If you want to raise literacy, libraries are a really good way to do it.”

Little has faced repercussions from the state GOP for last year’s veto. The Idaho Republican Party adopted a “vote of no confidence” for Little and 14 GOP House members who voted against overriding the veto.

Empowering Parents. Little indicated that the $30 million education microgrant program will probably get funded, weeks after his budget chief suggested zeroing it out.

Division of Financial Management administrator Alex Adams said Empowering Parents could be cut, in order to fit the 2024-25 budget under a more conservative state revenue estimate.

Budget-writers still have not agreed on a revenue estimate.

Little has hailed Empowering Parents, which provides families with taxpayer money to pay for out-of-pocket education costs, such as computers or internet access. He said he remains committed to the program, now in its second year. But he said he had to submit a balanced budget that met the possible revenue target.

“I did not want to walk away from it, but I kind of had a little bit of a gun to my head.”

Concealed carry. Little didn’t have much to say about a bill that would give school staff the right to carry weapons on campus.

Little recalled that he was involved in a previous reform that allowed school districts to make that call. House Bill 415 would give school staff the right to concealed carry on campus, regardless of district policy.

“I know there’s some issues with this,” Little said. “I think it’s probably going to get scrutinized.”

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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