Statehouse roundup, 4.2.24: As session resumes, an omnibus school ‘trailer’ bill rolls through House

The House quickly passed a far-reaching bill to fix a far-reaching school facilities law.

It was just one of a host of 11th-hours moves, as legislative leaders try to move closer to wrapping up the 2024 legislative session. Both the House and the Senate were in session until about 8 p.m. Tuesday. The houses will reconvene Wednesday morning, and might finish their remaining work Wednesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House unanimously approved a “trailer” bill to tweak House Bill 521, the facilities plan Gov. Brad Little signed into law Friday. The 68-0 floor vote on House Bill 766 came only five hours after the bill made its debut in the House Education Committee.

In the language of the Statehouse, HB 766 is known as a “trailer” – a followup to a bill that has already wound its way through the legislative process. And in the case of HB 521, lawmakers have written up an array of possible late-session repairs.

HB 766 surfaced Tuesday morning, as the Legislature began its 13th week in session, after a three-day Easter weekend. It is at least the eighth HB 521 “trailer” to emerge in recent days.

“I think that it’s the best not perfect thing that we have come up with,” House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, told committee members.

An omnibus “trailer,” the new bill incorporates several familiar topics:

  • Eases language for four-day schools, a contentious point in the HB 521 debate. Schools receiving a share of the $1 billion in new facilities funding would have to meet state requirements for classroom days – or minimums for instructional hours. The language on instructional hours is a major change; more than 90 districts and charters are operating under a four-day schedule, meeting the state’s minimums for classroom hours.
  • Guarantees charter schools facilities money, totaling $400 per student. This would swap out an old and complicated formula that provided charters with roughly the same amount of money.
  • Addresses one unique district’s funding issues. It would ensure that the Oneida School District collects as much money from HB 521 as it would have received from a bond levy equalization fund that HB 521 eliminates. Oneida passed a $29 million bond issue in 2023.
  • Allows the Senate to confirm the executive director of the State Board of Education.

As lawmakers hope to wrap up the 2024 session this week, the omnibus trailer now heads to the Senate.

HB 766 passed on the House floor without debate. In committee, House Education members expressed a few misgivings.

Vice chairwoman Lori McCann lamented the fact that lawmakers were being forced to scramble to rework HB 521 – a catchall law that funds school facilities, cuts income tax rates, eliminates the August school election date, and more.

“The Christmas tree bill affect is very frustrating to me as a legislator,” said McCann, R-Lewiston.

Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, criticized the idea of giving the Senate veto authority over the State Board’s executive director.

“This is the creep of partisan politics,” he said, “(and) this is how swamps are born.”

Launch funding clears Legislature …

Funding for Idaho Launch was secured Tuesday, as the Senate approved an appropriation for the program amid significant opposition. 

The 21-14 vote capped a turbulent path for the budding program, which offers Idaho high school graduates $8,000 for career training. House Bill 722, a budget for the Workforce Development Council, provides $70.8 million for Launch grants, covering about 9,000 students. 

Sen. Dave Lent, who co-sponsored the budget bill, said the program will help students develop “marketable skills” that they can plan to acquire from an earlier age. “Now they can get jobs, they can pay taxes, they can support their families,” said Lent, R-Idaho Falls. “They’re not living on the edge of the poverty level, dipping in and out of social programs.”

Little proposed the Launch program last year, and it narrowly cleared the Legislature. Since then, more than 13,000 students have applied for the scholarships. Still, the program has faced renewed resistance this year. 

Sen. Ben Adams Tuesday pointed to data showing a large share of college students change their majors. If students switch career paths after using Launch funding, then “it’s just free college,” said Adams, R-Nampa. 

The House already cleared HB 722 on a 39-31 vote. The bill now heads to Little’s desk.

… while a Launch policy bill runs into trouble

On the policy end, however, Launch hit a potential speed bump.

The Senate State Affairs Committee sent a bill tweaking the Launch program to the Senate floor for a possible amendment.

The changes are unlikely to have much to do with the centerpiece of House Bill 741 – reworking the definition of the “in-demand careers” that qualify for Launch grants.

Instead, Sen. Abby Lee said she wanted to address an “unbudgeted obligation” stemming from Launch.

Launch could drive a surge in community college enrollment, from students across the state – not just in the counties that already support local two-year schools. When a student from outside a community college taxing district enrolls in a two-year school elsewhere in Idaho, the student’s home county must subsidize this college through a $500 fee.

That money comes from a state liquor fund. But Lee, R-Fruitland, said an enrollment increase could stress that fund.

“I think we can get something worked out,” said State Affairs Chairman Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, supporting the unanimous move to send HB 741 to the floor for a possible amendment.

But amending the bill could be a dicey, last-minute proposition.

The Senate would still have to agree on amendments, and pass the bill. Then the amended bill would have to go back to the House, which passed the bill last week on a tight 38-31 vote.

Senate OK’s pronouns bill, sending it to governor

A bill heading to the governor’s desk would restrict the use of transgender students’ pronouns and grant legal protection to teachers who refuse to use students’ preferred pronouns. 

The Senate Tuesday approved House Bill 538. Co-sponsoring Sen. Chris Trakel said the bill protects free speech rights.

“We’re seeing today in society people being forced to use pronouns that they may or may not agree or disagree with,” Trakel, R-Caldwell, said during a Senate floor debate. “But that part’s irrelevant. What is relevant is we have government organizations dictating the speech (of) individuals.” 

HB 538 would: 

  • Bar K-12 public school teachers from using a pronoun or name for an underage student that doesn’t align with their birth sex. (A parent or guardian could consent to referring to their child by a preferred pronoun or name.)
  • Protect public employees, including school and college staff, from discipline if they refuse to use a pronoun that doesn’t align with an individual’s birth sex. 
  • Subject public employers, including school districts, colleges and universities, to civil liability and potential uncapped damages if they compel an employee to use a pronoun that doesn’t align with an individual’s birth sex.

The bill would impact students and public employees who are transgender but also others who don’t identify with a traditional male-female binary.

The Senate approved the bill on a 25-9 vote, a near party-line tally. Two Republicans — Sens. Abby Lee of Fruitland and Linda Wright Hartgen of Twin Falls — opposed it. 

Democrats blasted the legislation. Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said it protects a public worker who “intentionally doesn’t want to call somebody by their pronoun or their name” and “continues to berate them.” 

“That’s harassment,” Wintrow added. 

The House last month approved the bill on a party-line vote.

After DEI debate, Senate passes higher ed budget

A followup higher ed budget is headed to the governor’s desk – but not after another spirited Statehouse debate over DEI.

House Bill 734 does not fund any diversity, equity and inclusion programs. The $15.9 million budget covers pay raises and a variety of campus discretionary projects, from cybersecurity to student retention. No state budget dollars go into DEI.

Nonetheless, hardline conservatives pushed back against the budget.

Despite 2021 budget cuts designed to deter DEI initiatives, universities continue to fund DEI-related positions using privately raised money, said Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, who   proposed cutting $3.8 million from the budget. “They’re not getting the message,” he said.

Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, decried Boise State University DEI programs, such as graduation ceremonies and safe spaces for Black students only. “They’re actually resegregating people,” he said.

Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said DEI helps create a welcoming campus environment, and said the state’s political leaders need to stop denigrating these programs.

“It’s an onramp for racism, quite frankly,” said Wintow, who has worked in higher education for more than 30 years. “It’s an onramp for sexism.”

The Senate passed the budget on a 23-12 vote, over opposition from hardliners.

New — and familiar — buildings budget emerges

A new budget for state buildings – including a variety of education projects — moved swiftly Tuesday.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee introduced House Bill 768 Tuesday afternoon. About three hours later, the House approved the bill on a 48-18 vote.

The figures haven’t changed from an earlier bill that had passed the House.

Here’s how the $174.9 million Permanent Building Fund budget breaks down on education projects:

  • Boise State University: $13 million to put toward a science and research building.
  • University of Idaho: $2 million for its Meat Science and Innovation Center, and $2 million for the McCall Outdoor Science School.
  • Idaho State University: $7 million to remodel or expand physician assistant’s program facilities.
  • Lewis-Clark State College: $6.1 million for safety upgrades at its mechanical technical building.
  • Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind: $7 million total, including $6 million for new residential cottages.

The House passed a first version of the Permanent Building Fund budget last week on a 51-17 vote. But this bill was sidetracked after lawmakers learned that a legislative aide had rewritten a piece of the budget bill, without the knowledge of the committee’s chairs. (Details on the story from Clark Corbin of the Idaho Capital Sun.)

House approves discretionary money for K-12 schools

The House Tuesday advanced the largest chunk of a multi-pronged appropriation meant to reimburse public schools after they lost money reverting to an attendance-based funding formula. 

This year’s reversion from the more gainful enrollment-based formula cost K-12 schools the better part of $145 million. The Legislature’s budget committee recently proposed a series of appropriations to make up the losses. 

That includes $63.6 million in discretionary dollars as part of a “student support” budget — House Bill 763 — which also covers 2% merit-based raises for administrators and classified staff as well as federal COVID-19 aid. 

In total, to address the attendance-based funding gap, schools could get $105 million in discretionary dollars. School districts typically spend discretionary money on operations costs, such as teacher and staff pay. They could also get an additional $20 million toward a facilities fund designed to reduce local property taxes and another $20 million for the Career Ready Students program. 

“That fulfills our obligation to get all the money out that we committed to last year, even though we have fewer students,” Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said on the House floor. 

The student support budget now heads to the Senate.

Senate clears education budgets, policy clarification

The Senate plowed through bills Tuesday afternoon, including these education proposals:

  • House Bill 733, a $2.7 million line-item budget for community colleges. It includes 2% merit-based raises for community college employees. The Senate approved the budget on a 24-10 vote. 
  • House Bill 749, which provides an additional $1.6 million for the Idaho Digital Learning Academy. The money stems from an earlier bill that updated IDLA’s funding formula. The total $21.4 million appropriation for IDLA is 8.3% higher than last year’s. The bill passed unanimously.
  • House Bill 738 moves oversight of the Broadband Infrastructure Fund from the Department of Education to the Office of the State Board of Education. The Senate unanimously OK’d the bill.

The three bills now head to the governor’s desk.

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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