Statehouse roundup, 2.12.24: Despite opposition, latest library bill heads to Senate floor

Library officials say the latest bill to restrict content for minors is the best so far.

Still, Senate Bill 1289 faced widespread animosity during a public hearing Monday — from both librarians and conservative advocacy groups pushing censorship policies. 

Discontent from both sides of the protracted library debate is a sanguine sign of compromise, according to Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder. “It didn’t go far enough or went too far,” said Winder, R-Boise, before the Senate State Affairs Committee voted to advance the bill. 

The legislation would 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 before issuing a written decision on whether it will remove or relocate the material. 

The bill also would allow for uncapped civil damages if the committee finds the material in question is “harmful to minors” or library officials failed to take “reasonable steps” keeping “obscene” material out of children’s hands. 

“As long as they take reasonable steps to prevent its access, I don’t see a very big impact,” said Sen. Geoff Schroeder, R-Mountain Home, who’s co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa.

Sen. Geoff Schroeder, R-Mountain Home

SB 1289 is a mash-up of two bills introduced earlier this session — one from Schroeder to create the challenged book process and one from Crane proposing civil penalties. 

Librarians, library board trustees and other local officials said the new bill is an improvement from previous proposals. Last year, Crane’s bill making libraries liable for $2,500 in civil damages cleared the Legislature before Gov. Brad Little vetoed it. Two years ago, lawmakers rejected a proposal to jail librarians if they made available books considered “harmful to minors.” 

“After years of trying to address this issue, we think that this is probably about as good as it’s going to get for all involved,” said Sarah Bettwieser, a lobbyist for the Idaho Library Association, which is neutral on the bill. 

“This is perhaps the most workable policy that we’ve seen come forward during the legislative session,” said Kathy Griesmyer, government affairs director for the city of Boise, which is also staying neutral. 

However, much of Monday’s testimony pressed that a statewide policy isn’t needed, and could create a costly “legal minefield” for libraries and schools. Jeff Kohler, a trustee for the Meridian Library District, said locally developed reconsideration procedures already guide challenges, and he doubted whether a review committee would be feasible or effective. 

“Anyone who has been paying attention to the culture wars surrounding libraries the past few years would think twice before” joining such a committee, Kohler said. 

Two other Meridian trustees and Meridian Library Director Nick Grove testified Monday. They recalled an unsuccessful effort last year to dissolve their district, led by patrons unhappy with officials’ process for handling complaints. Ultimately, library supporters outnumbered dissolution advocates 100 to one, Grove said. 

“This might be what people show up in your office and shove in your face with one page of a book,” he said. “But this is not what your community is asking for.”

Idaho Falls Library Director Robert Wright asked the committee to amend the bill to remove the civil liability, and Meridian Republican Sen. Treg Bernt said that provision gives him “heartburn.” “I just do not like this policy, period. I think it causes way more problems than it solves,” said Bernt, before supporting a motion to advance the bill. 

Senate State Affairs — a committee stacked with GOP leaders — voted 6-3 to send the bill to the floor with no amendments and recommend that it pass. Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon rebuked concerns that the bill would be costly or would censor material that some parents want accessible for their children, and he pointed to the legal standard for “harmful to minors.” 

Content that’s “harmful to minors” is already defined in Idaho law. It’s material that’s “obscene,” appeals to the “prurient interest of minors” and is “patently offensive to prevailing standards” of what’s suitable for children. Content is also “harmful” if it’s “obscene” and “has the dominant effect of substantially arousing sexual desires” in minors.

“Obscene material,” as defined by Idaho law, is content that includes nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement and sado-masochistic abuse. Any act of homosexuality falls under the definition of “sexual conduct.”

Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley

“This, I do not agree has to be available for children in the library,” said Anthon, R-Burley. “To the extent it’s happening, and I’ve heard some instances where it is happening, I think it is proper for the Legislature to say, ‘This is not appropriate.’”

Sen. Ben Toews of Coeur d’Alene was the only Republican who opposed Anthon’s motion to advance the bill. Toews said his child twice checked out a “sexually explicit” library book that reappeared in their local library’s children’s section. “There are people, like my family, that have left the library because of frustrations and concerns.” But Toews said constituents on both sides of the debate believe it’s “not a good policy.” 

The Idaho Family Policy Center and the Idaho Freedom Foundation — conservative advocacy groups that have backed more stringent proposals in the past — both opposed SB 1289. 

“The bill makes no provisions or requirements for libraries or schools to preemptively keep harmful materials away from kids,” said Ron Nate, president of the Freedom Foundation. “They only have to react when someone complains.”

The bill now heads to the Senate floor. 

House Republicans select new majority leader

Rep. Jason Monks is returning to House GOP leadership.

Monks, R-Meridian, will replace Rep. Megan Blanksma as House majority leader. Republicans elected Monks to the position during a caucus Monday.

The majority leader’s spot was vacant, temporarily, after Republicans ousted Blanksma Thursday. The rare midsession vote came one day after Blanksma voted against a controversial budget bill supported by the rest of House GOP leadership.

Monks, a six-term legislator, had served as assistant majority leader in 2021 and 2022. He ran unsuccessfully for House speaker in 2022, losing to Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star.

Monks is now chairman of the powerful House Revenue and Taxation Committee. It’s unclear whether Monks will hold both posts or step aside as Revenue and Taxation chair. Historically, members of leadership do not also hold committee chairs.

Higher ed budget hearings begin, with CWI and CEI

The presidents of Idaho’s two newest community colleges spelled out the challenges of growth, and their plans to expand into four-year degrees.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held its first higher education hearings Monday, with presentations from College of Western Idaho President Gordon Jones and College of Eastern Idaho President Rick Aman.

Both presidents said a proposed 3% employee pay raise would help address some of their colleges’ payroll issues, but not all of them.

A state-funded, 3% pay raise line item would provide CWI about $400,000 Jones said, but CWI would need to come up with an additional $600,000 to cover all of its employees. While Aman described the 3% state pay raise as “critical,” he also said CEI would need to fund raises for its part-time employees.

The colleges outlined other staffing challenges.

A line item would help CWI provide pay raises for its academic advisers — the higher education “primary health physicians” who help nontraditional students navigate the demands of college, Jones said. Advisers play a critical role at CWI, but the college can only afford to pay them slightly more than $40,000 a year.

CWI is seeking a $275,000 line item that would bring these salaries to about $45,000 a year, Jones said. Gov. Brad Little’s proposed budget would boost this line item to $441,000, but it doesn’t fund a separate line item sought by the two-year schools.

CEI’s long-term growth, in fields from nursing to cybersecurity, is tied to adding full-time faculty, Aman said. But CEI’s starting faculty salary is $55,000, less than the state’s average teaching salary. “We have a challenge,” said Byron Miles, CEI’s vice president for finance and administration.

Other talking points from Monday’s JFAC hearing:

Four-year degrees. In December, the State Board of Education gave CWI and CEI the green light to offer its first four-year degrees. CWI will offer an applied bachelor’s degree in business administration, and CEI will offer applied bachelor’s degrees in cyberforensics and operations management. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the colleges’ regional accrediting body, must now approve the programs.

CEI hopes to launch its programs in January. CWI hopes to launch in the fall, or January at the latest. “We want to move fast,” Jones said.

Super Bowl ad. Jones didn’t have exact numbers, but said CWI probably paid tens of thousands of dollars for a brief ad during Sunday’s Super Bowl. Aired during a block of local commercials, CWI’s ad touted the college’s affordability.

The ad was only four seconds, Jones said, “which reflects our affordability levels.”

Community colleges receive their funding from several sources: state dollars, tuition and fees and local property taxes. Little has proposed spending $64 million on the community colleges, including $21.2 million for CWI and $7.6 million for CEI.

JFAC will continue its higher education budget hearings Wednesday, with presentations from North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho. The state’s four-year schools are scheduled to go before JFAC on Feb. 26 and Feb. 28.

Rapid fire: On deadline, Senate Education introduces eight new bills

Acting quickly Monday, the Senate Education Committee introduced a varied group of eight bills.

The slate includes everything from a ban on diversity, equity and inclusion programs on campus to money for classroom supplies.

Here are thumbnails of the eight bills:

DEI. Revisiting a hot-button higher education topic from previous sessions, this bill would ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs on campus. Sponsors say this bill would trim an estimated $3.2 million from the higher education budget. The bill also prohibit public colleges and universities from requiring diversity training for students, faculty and staff, and bans “political loyalty tests” in admissions or hiring. This bill is sponsored by Republican Sens. Brian Lenney of Nampa and Scott Herndon of Sagle, and Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene.

Classroom supplies. This bill would reinstate a program that provides teachers with money for classroom supplies. Teachers would receive prepaid debit cards of $500, at a statewide cost of about $9.6 million. The state stopped providing teachers with money for supplies in 2010.

Trustee training. A bill from Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, would narrow the reporting requirements under the state’s Continuous Improvement Plan student achievement framework. The bill also would require training for school board trustees on data literacy, student outcomes, evaluating administrators, dealing with the press and open meetings and public records law. “The primary goal of the legislation is to build school board capacity and drive continued student achievement in Idaho schools,” says the bill’s statement of purpose. A school trustee training bill narrowly failed in the House in 2023.

Empowering Parents. This bill, sponsored by Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, would give parents three years to spend grant funds, up from two. The bill also would clarify that public school students can use the funds for programs that require fees. And it would add homeschool co-op fees as an eligible expense.

Advanced Opportunities: This bill would increase the allowance for Advanced Opportunities from $4,125 to $4,625, in order to help K-12 students complete an associate degree. A similar bill to increase this cap stalled in the Senate last year. The bill would also lift the program cap for students who aren’t in a public school, increasing from $750 to $2,500.

Public comment: This bill would ensure school board and charter school trustees accept in-person public comment before taking final action on an item. Boards are required to set their own local rules for comment, according to the bill’s statement of purpose, “including reasonable time limits and conduct standards.”

Social studies and civics. This resolution would encourage the Department of Education to promote curriculum that: 1) highlights “the origin of the country and the founding principles within American government,” and 2) emphasizes “the importance of civil discourse and responsible participation in civic life.”

Western civilization. This proposal calls for promoting “the importance of the history of Western civilization, civics education, and responsible citizenship within applicable social studies, government and U.S. history courses.”

Senators voted to print all eight bills with no discussion. The committee was moving quickly because Monday was the deadline for Senate Education to introduce new bills. Senators can still push a new education-related bill after this deadline, but they have to work through a different committee, usually State Affairs.

It’s unclear when the committee might take up any of these bills.

Bills to restrict minors’ pornography access advance

Two bills seeking to close digital avenues for children to access pornography advanced Monday. 

A bill requiring content providers to verify the age of users who access “harmful” internet materials is headed to the House floor.

After limited discussion, the House State Affairs Committee unanimously passed House Bill 498, co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Elaine Price of Coeur d’Alene and Julianne Young of Blackfoot.

If passed, content providers could face civil lawsuits if they fail to verify a user’s age. Users and parents could file a lawsuit and seek damages of $10,000 or more.

“Parents need to have recourse,” said Steve Fullmer of Twin Falls, the only person to testify on HB 498 Monday.

With the committee’s vote, the House could take up the bill later this week.

The Senate, meanwhile, cleared a bill to require device manufacturers to enable pornography filters on smartphones and tablets used by children. 

Smartphone and tablet manufacturers would have to automatically turn on software that filters pornography on internet browsers, according to Senate Bill 1253. Sen. Kevin Cook last year proposed a similar bill that failed. 

The new version had bipartisan support. But conservative hardliners opposed it for a variety of reasons: that it should instead target pornography creators, that it could lead to costly legal challenges and that it’s an overreach of government authority. They also argued the automatically enabled filter could foster a false sense of security for parents seeking to restrict their child’s pornography access. 

“Parents might rely on that to allow the government … to babysit their children instead of them,” said Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton. 

Cook, R-Idaho Falls, emphasized that smartphones and tablets already have the filtering software, and it wouldn’t censor adults’ access to content, meaning it wouldn’t flout First Amendment rights. 

“The filter is already there, just enable it,” he said. “When this bill passes, the adult will never know the difference. The adult’s morning cup of free-flowing pornography will not be impeded.”

Senators voted 23-12 to send the bill to the House.

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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