Statehouse roundup, 3.21.24 (UPDATED): Logjam breaks on facilities bill, Launch

Sen. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, closes debate on the school facilities bill Thursday. (Kevin Richert/Idaho EdNews)

Within the span of a few minutes, two big bills passed at the Statehouse Thursday, moving the 2024 session out of neutral, and maybe closer to conclusion.

A deeply divided House narrowly passed a spending bill to fund Idaho Launch — a brand-new but popular grant program that has already generated some 13,500 applications from high school seniors.

Shortly after that vote, the Senate passed a bill to provide $1 billion for school facilities — wrapped within an income tax cut and a spate of school policy changes.

Before Thursday’s votes, the Legislature had slowed almost to a standstill. With the school facilities omnibus bill on hold in the Senate, the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee put off any votes to wrap up the K-12 budget. Launch also was in limbo this week, when House Speaker Mike Moyle parked its budget in committee and delayed a vote.

The 2024 Legislature entered its 74th day Thursday. Legislative leaders have said they hope to wrap up the session next week.

Facilities bill overcomes late-session resentment in Senate

In one of the more captivating Statehouse debates of the legislative session, the Senate endorsed House Bill 521, the sweeping proposal to fund school facilities and cut taxes.

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his likely signature. Gov. Brad Little’s office co-authored the legislation with Republican lawmakers, including Moyle, R-Star.

“Together, we secured the largest-ever investment in school facilities funding in state history while giving families back more of their hard-earned money with property and income tax relief,” Little said in a news release Thursday.

HB 521 creates a handful of mechanisms for the state to spend an estimated $2 billion on K-12 school facilities over the next decade — $1.5 billion of it new spending. That includes $1 billion school districts can use on facility construction and maintenance as soon as next school year.

Thursday’s debate struck a tone that’s become familiar in recent legislative sessions: lawmakers exasperated by another late-session push to pass a bill with far-reaching changes to state policy and spending.

“Quite frankly, I get tired of it,” said Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon.  “Every single year, we do this, and we put ourselves in the corner. … Our facilities have been crumbling and hurting for decades, but today we’ve decided this is the end of it.”

In addition to the facilities funding, HB 521 cuts income taxes, eliminates the August election date for school districts and restructures appointment authority for the State Board of Education’s leadership. And it requires districts receiving the facilities funds to abide by to-be-determined minimum instructional and teacher contract days if they’ve adopted four-day school weeks.

Senate roll call vote on the facilities bill
Yes: Anthon, Bernt, Bjerke, Burtenshaw, Cook, Grow, Harris, Hart, Hartgen, Herndon, Just, Lakey, Lee, Lent, Nichols, Okuniewicz, Ricks, Schroeder, Taylor, Toews, VanOrden, Ward-Engelking.
No: Adams, Carlson, Den Hartog, Foreman, Guthrie, Lenney, Rabe, Semmelroth, Trakel, Wintrow, Zuiderfeld.
Absent: Winder.

Many of those provisions could still change. But the Senate approved the current version on a 23-11 vote, after it more easily cleared the House on Feb. 23 on a bipartisan 61-6 vote.

Thursday’s support and opposition cut across ideological lines, as the bill divided Republicans and Democrats.

Supporters argued that it goes a long way to address an urgent need while acknowledging that it doesn’t fully solve the problem. It will be “huge” in helping school districts pay for new buildings, said Sen. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, who co-sponsored the bill. “It’s not going to do all of it, but it’ll take a lot of the pressure off our local taxpayers.”

For lawmakers who have spent years trying to address the shortage in facilities funding, the bill is a “victory,” said Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls. “Let’s not be too quick here to sell this short… We’ll continue this discussion, because it doesn’t end here. But, certainly, this is a giant step forward.”

But opponents argued that HB 521 doesn’t resolve the most pressing problem: Small, rural school districts often don’t get support for bonds to pay for new buildings, and the bill won’t cover the costs either.

Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise, pointed to the North Gem School District, which needs a new high school but would only get an estimated $460,000 from HB 521.

“Let’s not pass a $1 billion bill and then say we fixed facilities at the literal expense of our rural school districts,” Semmelroth said. “We cannot confuse ‘more’ with ‘adequate.’”

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

Sen. Lori Den Hartog — whose local school district, West Ada, would benefit most from the bill — said the state doesn’t even know how much is needed to address the funding shortfall for facilities. “I don’t even think we have our arms around the problem,” said Den Hartog, R-Meridian.

A Legislature-sanctioned study from 2022 estimated about $845 million was needed to get school facilities up to good condition, but that figure was based on a survey, Den Hartog said. Meanwhile, school districts have not followed a state law requiring 10-year facilities needs assessments, she said.

The 2022 report from the Office of Performance Evaluations recommended a statewide assessment of school facility needs but no such study has been done.

Other opponents worried HB 521 is unconstitutional. A provision in the state constitution prohibits one bill from addressing multiple subjects. In “Frankenstein” fashion, HB 521 spans more than two dozen sections of Idaho code, said Sen. Ali Rabe, D-Boise. “It makes it impossible to contemplate and consider the implications of each of these changes separately, which is how I believe we should be making policies.”

Launch budget passes, after a debate revisits old themes

To a large extent, the debate preceding Thursday’s Launch vote echoed floor debates from 2023, when the Legislature voted to create the program.

Supporters again said the $8,000 grants would change the lives of high school graduates — by encouraging them to pursue good-paying jobs in high-demand careers. “I view this as an investment,” said Rep. Matthew Bundy, R-Mountain Home, a high school teacher.

Opponents continued to call Launch an overreach and a handout. “It’s sad that we’re having to incentivize kids to care about their future,” said Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle.

“The points are still relevant,” said Rep. Joe Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene. “We are using taxpayer dollars to pick winners and losers.”

But Thursday’s debate also centered on a new theme. Since October, some 13,500 seniors have applied for a share of the money — an unexpected surge of interest from more than half of the state’s graduating Class of 2024.

The Launch budget, nearly $70.8 million, would cover close to 8,900 grants. But if the budget doesn’t pass, no graduates would receive grants, and the program would essentially fizzle.

“We don’t often get the opportunity to vote on a policy … that we already know is going to work,” said Rep. Kenny Wroten, R-Nampa.

“I feel we need to uphold the law and the spirit of the law,” said Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls. “I think we need to follow through.”

Thursday’s House roll call on the Launch budget

The Launch budget passed on a 39-31 vote  — with 28 Republicans and all 11 House Democrats in support. By comparison, the first 2023 Launch bill passed the House by just one vote, although a followup bill tightening the program passed on a 51-16 vote.

This year’s Launch budget now goes to the Senate.

And Thursday’s vote is probably not the last time the House will take up Launch. The Senate has already passed a bill that’s designed to narrow the state’s definition of an “in-demand career” eligible for grants. That bill, or a House version, is likely to come up for a floor vote in the coming days.

Senate seeks a makeover of the facilities bill

Thursday’s action began with the Senate unveiling a series of four bills to rework HB 521.

The four bills propose a mix of changes to the omnibus bill, and some of the changes appear to contradict each other:

  • One bill would change the way the state hands out money for school facilities. School districts would receive no less than $100,000, no matter how small they are. No district could receive more than $100 million. This wouldn’t change the cost of the facilities program. It would simply change the way the $1 billion is carved up.
  • One bill would repeal the section of HB 521 that discourages districts to move to a four-day calendar. This language says districts must agree to stay on a five-day calendar in order to receive facilities funding — but later says that schools switching to four days must meet minimum scheduling requirements set by the State Board of Education.
  • One bill includes the minimum and maximum facilities payments, while putting the four-day schedule requirements on hold for a year.
  • The fourth bill puts all the facilities payments on hold for a year.

Lent, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee have proposed the four bills. The idea is to provide more time to sort out how HB 521 would work, Lent told the Senate State Affairs Committee.

The committee voted unanimously to introduce all four bills — which means they could come back to a Senate committee for a full hearing.

But some questions and frustrations surfaced during Thursday’s brief committee hearing.

Sen. Treg Bernt, R-Meridian, said Lent has done “a phenomenal job” of seeking a compromise. But Bernt took issue with the $100 million cap, which would hurt his local school district. Under HB 521, the West Ada School District would stand to receive $140 million. “I feel like we’re just throwing darts against the wall.”

Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon criticized the House, and the far-reaching scope of HB 521. The bill left senators with an untenable choice: In order to get a “nice shiny piece” of the bill that they do want, he said, lawmakers also have to sign off on things they don’t want.

“I would say the majority of the Idaho Senate is tired of that,” said Anthon, R-Burley. “But here we are.”

House approves measures on library board terms, civics education 

The House passed two other education-related measures Thursday: 

  • Senate Bill 1235, from Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, would reduce library board terms from six years to four years. It’s headed to the governor’s desk, after the House approved it on a 61-9 vote. The Senate previously endorsed the bill on a 22-12 vote.
  • Senate Concurrent Resolution 116 urges the Department of Education to promote “the importance of the history of Western civilization, civics education and responsible citizenship” in social studies and history courses. The House and Senate adopted the resolution on voice votes. It does not need the governor’s approval.
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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