Senate passes Idaho Launch bills, as incentive plan nears finish line

The Senate voted Wednesday to create Idaho Launch, a multimillion-dollar postsecondary career incentives plan.

The companion bills would allow high school graduates to receive up to $8,000 to attend community college, pursue a career-technical education certificate or complete workforce training. The program carries an annual price tag of up to $80 million.

Wednesday’s votes represent a breakthrough for Gov. Brad Little on one of his top legislative priorities. He proposed Idaho Launch as a vehicle to help young adults move into high-demand careers, and help employers fill stubborn job vacancies.

The votes, after two hours of divided Senate floor debate, also represent a breakthrough of sorts for the Legislature. Lawmakers hope to wrap up the 2023 session, perhaps by Friday, and Idaho Launch is one of the big, unresolved issues standing in the way of adjournment.

Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls

The bills’ floor sponsor, Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, acknowledged Idaho Launch carries some risk as a novel way to spend the $80 million-a-year in-demand career fund created by the Legislature in September. But he also touted Idaho Launch as a triple threat, saying it would help students, help employers and cut taxes in the long run, by moving people off of public assistance and into the economy.

Twenty-five of the Senate’s 35 members debated the proposal, with opponents raising a variety of concerns — and recurring themes from the debate that has surrounded the Idaho Launch program since Jan. 9, when Little unveiled the proposal during his State of the State address:

  • Opponents said the program would inject government into the free markets — by steering students towards in-demand careers, as defined by the state’s Workforce Development Council. “(It’s) straight out of the Soviet playbook. … It’s something called central planning,” said Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, drawing a warning from Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke, who had cautioned senators to maintain decorum during debate.
  • Some opponents labeled the incentives as a giveaway to students. “It’s free college for some but not for all,” said Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa.
  • Others called the program a giveaway to big business, which would benefit from taxpayer-subsidized worker training. “I don’t want us to pretend that this is anything but what it is,” said Sen. Ben Adams, R-Nampa.
  • Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said the root problem is a system of four-year schools that fails to respond to industry needs. “We have not been able to turn the Titanic. … But I believe this is the wrong way to turn the Titanic.”
“House Bill 24 is a failure to launch,” said Sen. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, a program opponent

Co-sponsors rallied to the program’s defense.

“This is an experiment. Let’s see what works,” said Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, who called the investment in education a form of investing in the state’s infrastructure.

“This provides more of an immediate response to our industries’ needs,” said Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon.

“It’s not taking over the economy,” said Sen. Geoff Schroeder, R-Mountain Home. “It’s providing resources to help accelerate the economy.”

Idaho Launch would tap into a chunk of the $410 million in new, ongoing education funding allocated during September’s one-day special legislative session. During that session, lawmakers created an $80 million-a-year in-demand careers fund. But opponents said the idea of an incentives program wasn’t discussed during the special session — or in an advisory vote that passed overwhelmingly in November.

Lent said Idaho Launch represents the change Idahoans want to see in their education system. “I think they voted for outcomes, not just more money going into schools.”

The Senate voted for two Idaho Launch bills Wednesday.

They passed House Bill 24, the original Launch bill, which narrowly passed the House six weeks ago.

Then they followed up by passing Senate Bill 1167, a “trailer” bill. It tightens the scope of the Launch program in several ways.

This really represents the best of what our government can do,” said Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise, an Idaho Launch supporter

It reduces the program cost from $102 million to a projected $80 million. It caps student incentives at $8,000 and requires students to pay for at least 20% of their education costs. It forbids students from putting Launch money toward a four-year degree — but keeps intact the state Opportunity Scholarship, which is geared for students seeking a college degree. It also requires the Workforce Development Council to submit annual legislative reports on Idaho Launch.

HB 24 passed on a 20-15 vote. SB 1167 passed on a 21-14 margin, with Sen. Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell, switching his vote to support the trailer bill.

Now, the bills take divergent paths.

HB 24 heads to Little’s desk. The House still must pass SB 1167.

After Wednesday’s votes, Little made his intentions clear.

“We’re almost there in achieving a transformative change for Idaho students, families, and businesses,” Little said in a news release.

How they voted

Here’s how senators voted on Senate Bill 1167, the second of the two Idaho Launch bills passed Wednesday:

Yes: Kelly Anthon, R-Burley; Treg Bernt, R-Meridian; Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton; Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls; C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle; Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon; Mark Harris; R-Soda Springs; Linda Wright Hartgen, R-Twin Falls; Rick Just; D-Boise; Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls; Ali Rabe, D-Boise; James Ruchti, D-Pocatello; Geoff Schroeder, R-Mountain Home; Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise; Ron Taylor, D-Hailey; Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell; Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree; Janie Ward-Engelking; D-Boise; Chuck Winder, R-Boise; Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise.

No: Ben Adams, R-Nampa; Carl Bjerke, R-Coeur d’Alene; Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins; Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian; Dan Foreman, R-Moscow; Phil Hart, R-Kellogg; Scott Herndon, R-Sagle; Todd Lakey, R-Nampa; Brian Lenney, R-Nampa; Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton; Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden; Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg; Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene; Glenneda Zuiderfeld, R-Twin Falls.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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