Statehouse roundup, 3.27.24: Senate kills Phoenix bill, throwing purchase into jeopardy

The Senate killed a late-session bill to rework the University of Phoenix purchase — and legislative leaders say the startling vote could stop the $685 million deal in its tracks.

Hardline conservatives and several Democrats banded together to defeat Senate Bill 1450, which had the backing of Senate leadership and the University of Idaho.

The next steps are unclear — and Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder indicated the U of I’s plans could be dead.

“If they don’t have a legal way to go forward, I don’t know that they can complete the deal,” Winder, R-Boise, told reporters Wednesday afternoon, moments after the 14-19 Senate vote.

The U of I isn’t closing the door on affiliating with Phoenix — which university officials have touted as a moneymaker that also would expand online education opportunities in rural Idaho. “We are disappointed this bill did not pass and are reviewing our options,” U of I spokeswoman Jodi Walker said in a Wednesday afternoon email.

The Senate vote came after two state elected officials urged lawmakers to reject SB 1450.

Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s chief deputy said the bill failed to fix the purchase’s structural flaws. “It still permits the (State Board of Education) to exercise authority outside the scope of its constitutional charter, still raises serious separation of powers concerns, and still lacks a primarily public purpose,” Phillip Broadbent wrote in a Tuesday letter to Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian.

On Wednesday, state Treasurer Julie Ellsworth publicly criticized SB 1450.

“If this transaction were to go through, we still believe there could be liability borne by the state of Idaho if things were to go south,” Ellsworth said in a letter to legislators.

Both letters circulated through Senate chambers, and likely had a bearing on the outcome.

“Yesterday, I think it would have passed,” said Winder.

Unveiled Monday morning, and passed almost unanimously in committee Tuesday morning, SB 1450 would have overhauled the Phoenix deal.

It would have scrapped the U of I’s plan to place Phoenix under the umbrella of a nonprofit, Four Three Education — a structure that Labrador and two attorneys for the Legislature have called unconstitutional. Instead, Four Three would have been required to operate as a quasi-governmental body.

The bill would have required Four Three to file annual reports with the Legislature, while forbidding Four Three from seeking state funding.

The bill also sought to limit the state’s financial risk — and would have diverted any proceeds from Phoenix into a higher education account under the Legislature’s purview.

But the Senate spent little time discussing any of these details, during a brief and odd floor session.

Before Winder could open debate, Sen. Scott Herndon tried to force a full reading of the six-page bill — a procedural protest designed to slow down a session. His motion was deemed out of order, and Herndon then said he would try to make his points in debate.

After Winder opened debate, no senator rose to follow suit. Even Herndon stayed seated. “We knew we had the votes,” Herndon, R-Sagle, said after the vote.

During the roll call vote, several senators did stand up and explain their votes.

“I just think this cannot go wrong,” said Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, a supporter who praised Phoenix’s technology.

“It seems odd to me that we are the only state clamoring to make this happen,” said Den Hartog, who voted no.

Senate roll call
Yes (14): Anthon, Bernt, Cook, Guthrie, Harris, Hartgen, Just, Lakey, Lee, Lent, Patterson (Ward-Engelking), Schroeder, Shea (Ruchti), Winder.
No (19): Adams, Bjerke, Carlson, Den Hartog, Foreman, Grow, Hart, Herndon, Lenney, Nichols, Okuniewicz, Rabe, Ricks, Semmelroth, Taylor, Toews, Trakel, Wintrow, Zuiderveld.
Absent (2): Burtenshaw, VanOrden


The vote cut across party lines, and divided Senate Republicans. The four members of GOP leadership supported the bill, as did Senate Education Committee Chairman Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls. Hardline conservatives led the opposition, and were joined by four of the Senate’s seven Democrats.

The Senate vote came nearly a month after the House passed a separate resolution — which urged the State Board to reconsider its support of the purchase, and opened the possibility of a legislative lawsuit.

The Senate hasn’t taken up this resolution.

But after the Senate vote, House Speaker Mike Moyle also suggested the purchase is dead.

“I think it’s a tough go from here for anything,” said Moyle, R-Star. “I think it’s done. But I could be wrong.”

Republicans fail to slash university budgets over DEI concerns

In a Wednesday debate — reminiscent of the Legislature’s past wrangling over Critical Race Theoryconservative House Republicans indicted diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives while attempting to strip millions of dollars from Idaho colleges and universities. 

At the center of the debate was a line-item budget that includes $7.8 million for college and university employee merit raises along with $7 million for 29.25 new full-time positions. That’s part of a $700 million total state appropriation for colleges and universities next fiscal year. 

The House narrowly approved the budget line items on a 38-30 vote. 

But not before hardline conservatives proposed cutting $3.2 million to $3.8 million from the budget to demonstrate the Legislature’s opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s unclear where that number came from, but the Idaho Freedom Foundation recently alleged that Idaho colleges and universities are spending millions on DEI initiatives. 

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls

“I’m asking you to send a message to our universities, as we have done before: This is not what we want,” said Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls.

Rep. Josh Tanner, a Boise State University alumnus, said his college professors pushed their political ideologies onto students. He recalled being one of the few students who spoke in opposition to socialized health care during a lecture.

“What we need to continue teaching within our education system … is that we are Americans, and we are here to make America better,” said Tanner, R-Eagle. “We are here to strengthen America and that is the No. 1 thing that we should be pushing.”

Rep. James Petzke, a budget committee member, noted that the Legislature has already restricted colleges and universities from spending state-appropriated funds on DEI initiatives. But the institutions have other fund sources — such as student fees and donations — that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee can’t regulate. 

“That’s an issue that we can deal with in another way, but it’s not something that we can deal with through JFAC,” said Petzke, R-Meridian. 

Two House Republicans defended DEI.

“We need to learn to work with a diverse group of people. We need to learn to understand different cultures,” said Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston.

“There is diversity within our student populations, and we shouldn’t be asking our universities and colleges to ignore it,” said Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg. 

With far less acrimony, the House approved two other college and university budgets Wednesday: 

House Bill 735 directs roughly $175 million to the Permanent Building Fund for 10 line items. That includes: 

  • $13 million for a new science building at Boise State.
  • $7 million for an expansion of Idaho State University’s physician assistant building capacity.
  • $6 million for residential cottages at the School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding.

House Bill 733 is a $2.75 million line-item budget for community colleges, which includes 2% merit-based raises.

In an afternoon session, the House advanced two more education-related bills:

House Bill 749 sends an additional $1.6 million to the Idaho Digital Learning Academy. The money stems from an earlier bill this session that updated IDLA’s funding formula. The total $21.4 million appropriation for IDLA is 8.3% higher than last year’s. 

House Bill 747 makes a small correction to House Bill 500, which the Legislature approved earlier this year. That bill prevented students from double-dipping in the Opportunity Scholarship and Idaho Launch programs. The new legislation clarifies that the regulation starts with the graduating high school class of 2025.

All the bills now head to the Senate.

State receives more time to roll out CTE grants

The Idaho Department of Education could get some more time to roll out career-technical grants.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee gave the department the go-ahead to spend up to $39 million for CTE grants in the 2024-25 budget year, which begins July 1.

This represents the bulk of the $45 million carved out for CTE a year ago. The 2023 Legislature created the Career Ready Students Fund, bankrolling state superintendent Debbie Critchfield’s plan to put one-time money into new, rural CTE programs.

The $45 million hasn’t been spent yet, but it is pretty much spoken for. A state council has approved 58 CTE projects, totaling $43 million.

All told, the state received $138 million in grant requests, the Department of Education said recently.

New charter facilities bill could be fine-tuned

The third time could still be the charm for a bill to establish a set fund for charter school facilities.

But House Bill 745 could get a slight tweaking in the Senate. The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the floor for amendment.

The basic premise of the bill isn’t new. The bill would replace a complicated charter schools facility formula, and provide brick-and-mortar charter schools $400 per student. Virtual charters would receive $200 per student.

The Senate has passed two similar versions of the bill, but HB 745 seems to be the bill that is moving most quickly through the Legislature. The House introduced the bill Monday and passed it overwhelmingly on Tuesday.

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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