Statehouse roundup, 3.19.24: Session slows to a grind, with some big education issues stalled

With one big bill on hold on the Senate floor, big pieces of the education budget are also in a state of stasis.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will not finish its work on the K-12 budget until the Senate votes on a complicated school facilities and income tax bill, JFAC’s House co-chair said Tuesday morning.

“We have some work ahead of us yet,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, as JFAC wrapped up a 20-minute morning meeting.

Then, at midday Tuesday, House Speaker Mike Moyle dropped a bombshell. He derailed a spending bill for Idaho Launch, Gov. Brad Little’s grant program for high school graduates who commit to continuing their education. He assigned the $70.8 million Launch budget to the House Ways and Means Committee — where it could sit on hold, indefinitely.

The next moves are anything but clear, as the 2024 session has come to a standstill. JFAC adjourned Tuesday morning “subject to the call of the chair;” in legislative lexicon, that means the committee will meet again, but it’s unclear when that will happen. House Ways and Means essentially meets at Moyle’s direction, so the Launch budget bill would only move with the blessing of the speaker, a vocal Launch opponent. “We parked it over there, to rest comfortably, and we’ll see what happens in the next day or two,” Moyle, R-Star, said after Tuesday morning’s floor session.

As the 2024 session entered its 72nd day Tuesday, several key pieces of the education puzzle are in limbo:

  • The Launch budget, approved by JFAC in February, isn’t the only Launch bill in flux. The Senate last week approved a bill designed to rein in the “in-demand career” courses that qualify for Launch dollars. The House hasn’t taken this up.
  • Also in limbo is Empowering Parents, which would provide $30 million in microgrants to pay for families’ out-of-pocket education expenses. The Senate Friday passed a bill to tweak Empowering Parents — amidst speculation that some lawmakers might want to expand the program to cover private school costs.
  • State superintendent Debbie Critchfield and her allies are making an 11th-hour push to take a first stab at reworking Idaho’s K-12 funding formula. A funding formula bill made its debut Friday.
  • It’s also unclear whether, or how, the Legislature might wind up weighing in on the University of Idaho’s $685 million bid to buy the University of Phoenix. The House passed a resolution that could slow or kill the purchase. The Senate hasn’t acted on the proposal, and some lawmakers are looking at restructuring the deal.

Horman’s comments Tuesday illustrate the interplay between the K-12 budget and the omnibus facilities and income tax bill.

The facilities and income tax package, House Bill 521, is almost to Little’s desk. It has easily passed the House and easily cleared the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee. But that committee vote occurred two weeks ago — so Senate leaders have had ample time to bring the bill up for a floor vote, if they’d wanted to.

It’s possible instead that Senate leaders are holding off on a vote because they want movement on another issue — rendering HB 521 a “hostage,” in Statehouse shorthand.

If and when it passes, schools would share $1 billion to offset building bonds and levies. In addition to the tax cuts also folded in the bill, HB 521 would also eliminate the August school election date, one of a handful of contentious “strings attached.”

Any additional K-12 budget from JFAC would be a followup.

The budget committee has already sent out what it calls a “maintenance” budget for K-12 — which would provide close to $3.1 billion, to cover ongoing costs.

That budget passed the House on Feb. 9. It too is awaiting a Senate vote, and it has been parked on the Senate’s calendar for more than two weeks.

Bill trimming library board terms heads to House floor

Library trustees could soon have their terms trimmed from six years to four. 

Sen. Scott Herndon’s bill to reduce library board terms cleared the House State Affairs Committee on a party-line vote Tuesday. Herndon, R-Sagle, said voters should more frequently weigh-in on library matters, and he pointed to controversies around drag queen-themed library programs, COVID-19 restrictions and material accessible to children in libraries. 

“Parents want to exercise their right to speak to their library district trustees either at a public meeting…or through the election cycle,” he said. 

The Legislature more than a decade ago changed library terms from six to four years. Herndon said he didn’t know why that change was made, but Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, who was a legislator then, said it was meant to address a shortage of library board candidates. 

Two people spoke in opposition to Senate Bill 1235. “It is an unnecessary intrusion into control of library governance,” said Elinor Chehey, vice president of The League of Women Voters of Idaho. “Six-year terms contribute to a continuity of policies of public libraries and it’s a process that’s working. This is a solution in search of a problem.”

SB 1235 would take effect next year.

The bill now heads to the House floor. The Senate approved it on a 22-12 vote, with six Republicans opposed.

Nonprofit inventory bill awaits amendments

An attempt to get an inventory of a state-affiliated nonprofits will go to the Senate floor for amendments.

House Bill 708 would outlaw state agencies from creating new corporations — and begin a lengthy process of reviewing the nonprofits already in place.

Agencies would have to dissolve these nonprofits, sever ties with these nonprofits or rework them into an independent body politic, an entity created by the Legislature.

State-affiliated nonprofits are common. Colleges and universities have nonprofits to manage their alumni associations or foundations, for example. And in one high-profile example, the University of Idaho has proposed creating a nonprofit to operate the University of Phoenix.

But HB 708 wasn’t written to help — or hinder — any particular nonprofit, said one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

“This provides a clear path for every nonprofit corporation that the state’s associated with, to do business the right way,” said Rep. Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello.

While the U of I maintains that the Phoenix nonprofit would be constitutional, the Legislature has received several opinions to the contrary. Given that, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder proposed amending the bill to begin the process of taking an inventory of nonprofits.

“I think we do need to gather the information,” said Winder, R-Boise.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted to send HB 708 to the Senate’s amending order.

If the Senate amends and passes the bill, the House would again have to vote on it. The House passed the bill in its current form last week.

Senate clears bill to stabilize charter facilities funding

The Senate on Tuesday advanced a bill that would set a new baseline for charter school facility funding. 

Currently, state funding for charter school facilities is a per-student calculation based on the amount of outstanding bonds and plant facility levies held by traditional school districts. Last year, House Bill 292, a property tax relief bill, inadvertently cut facilities funding for charter schools by helping school districts pay down bonds and levies. 

Senate Bill 1391, sponsored by Sen. Lori Den Hartog, would restore the lost funding and establish a $400 per-student baseline. 

The change isn’t intended to increase charter school facilities funding moving forward, said Den Hartog, R-Meridian. From fiscal years 2021 to 2023, charters received between $389 and $422 from the current formula, she said. “It seemed like the 400 was a nice spot in the middle.” 

Under the bill, charters would either get 50% of the statewide bond and plant facility levy per-student average — the current formula — or $400 per student, whichever is greater. 

The formula would have one carve out for school districts that authorize virtual charter schools in the future. If House Bill 521 — a pending bill to boost facilities funding for traditional school districts — is signed into law, SB 1391 would bar virtual authorizers from receiving charter facilities funding if they also get money through HB 521.

The Senate also passed a backup to SB 1391 — Senate Bill 1392 — that removes reference to HB 521 in case it doesn’t clear the Legislature. Senators unanimously endorsed both charter facilities bills, which now head 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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