On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Clark Corbin, and co-hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of education funding issues that came up in the Legislature this week, from WiFi to broadband to teacher pay. Also, Davlin and Kunz interview House Majority Leader Mike Moyle on the end game for the session; Davlin explores the new Idaho core standards and how they’re playing out in Idaho classrooms; and you’ll get a glimpse of various Idahoans reciting the Gettysburg Address as part of a Ken Burns documentary project. The show airs at 8 p.m. tonight; it re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 Pacific; and plays on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 7 p.m. After it airs, you can watch it here online any time.
Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how lawmakers decided today that Idaho school districts – like Coeur d’Alene – that opted not to join a controversial statewide contract for high school WiFi services should qualify for state funding for their own WiFi networks. The decision from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee would not only allow districts that went out on their own to be reimbursed; it’d also offer that option to those now in the contract who want to withdraw; those districts, if they met certain standards, would get $21 per student, the same price the state is paying Education Networks of America.
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who signed the five- to 15-year contract in July based on a one-year appropriation from JFAC, called today’s decision “good news,” saying it showed the state would continue to support wireless networks for every Idaho high school, which he said was his goal all along.
Idaho’s state Board of Correction could contract out prison inmates as farm laborers, under legislation making its way through this year. Reporter Sean Ellis of the Capital Press has a report here on the bill, SB 1374 from Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. Ellis reports that fruit growers in southwestern Idaho have struggled to find enough workers to pick their fruit in recent years, and last year, pear were left unpicked in the Sunny Slope area. The inmate workers would be paid under the same payment standards used by Correctional Industries, and part of their earnings could go to pay restitution orders, to offset their costs of incarceration, to buy prison commissary items and to help them re-enter society when they’re released.
SB 1374 was amended in the Senate yesterday. It has backing from the Idaho Farm Bureau and fruit growers. The bill says the inmate labor could only be used when there are labor shortages; the inmate workers couldn’t displace any other workers in the region.
The general fund revenue report is out for February, and the numbers are positive – state tax revenues came in 28.6 percent ahead of forecasts. February’s $27.5 million surplus is enough to offset the previous month’s $25.9 million shortfall; year to date, general fund receipts are now $3.6 million more than forecast. You can read the full report here. Individual income tax collections were the strongest category, coming in more than three times higher than expected, according to the governor's Division of Financial Management.
The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into private prison company Corrections Corporation of America and how it ran an Idaho state prison plagued by inmate violence, the AP reports. The Idaho State Police was asked to investigate the company last year but didn't, until amid increasing political pressure, the governor ordered the agency to do so last month. Democratic state lawmakers asked the FBI to take up the case last month. Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray confirmed Friday that the FBI met with department director Brent Reinke on Thursday to inform him about the investigation. Idaho State Police spokeswoman Teresa Baker said her agency was no longer involved with the investigation and the FBI has taken it over entirely. “They (the FBI) have other cases that are tied to this one so it worked out better for them to handle it from here,” Baker said; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
The homeowner’s exemption from property tax would no longer be indexed and go up and down with the market, under legislation from the Idaho Realtors and the Idaho Farm Bureau that cleared the House Revenue & Taxation Committee today. HB 594 would instead set the homeowner’s exemption at a fixed $90,000; it’s now indexed to reflect changes in the Idaho Housing Price Index. The bill now moves to the full House for debate.
A narrowly divided House voted 34-32 in favor of HB 556, legislation from Rep. Steven Harris, R-Boise, to require parent and student input in teacher evaluations – a bill that was opposed by all three major education stakeholder groups in Idaho, and a departure from the governor’s education improvement task force recommendations. “I think we’ve been down this path before, when we assumed we know better than the professionals in education,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told the House. “It didn’t end well last time.”
Nevertheless, the bill passed. After the House had moved on to other business, Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian, asked to change his vote on HB 556 from “no” to “yes,” prompting the House to go at ease and leadership from both parties to huddle. After a break, the House reconvened and agreed to allow Holtzclaw to change his vote – making the vote on the controversial bill 35-31 – but House Speaker Scott Bedke warned lawmakers that they should think carefully about their votes. A vote can be changed only by unanimous consent of the House, and he noted that in past sessions, either the majority or the minority has objected to such changes and they haven’t been allowed. The bill now moves to the Senate Education Committee.
Harris’ bill includes an array of specific percentages of weight that must be given to parent and student input and certain other factors in teacher evaluations, with those percentages increasing each year through 2019; it also requires larger percentages of weight in teacher evaluations to be placed on student test scores. No distinction is made between older or younger students in requiring their input. Associations representing Idaho school administrators, school board members and teachers all opposed the bill.
With little debate, the Senate has voted 28-6 in favor of SJR 106, Sen. Steve Vick’s proposed constitutional amendment to empower the House speaker and the Senate president pro-tem to order the governor to call a special session of the Legislature for a veto override try, if the veto was issued after lawmakers finished their session and left town. Currently, Idaho lawmakers have no way to override post-session vetoes, though nothing stops them from proposing the same bill again when they convene the next year.
Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, argued against the bill, saying empowering just two officials to call a special session on behalf of the whole Legislature was inappropriate; Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, responded that the Legislature could pass enabling legislation if the constitutional amendment passes, requiring more steps. But it received the required two-thirds vote, and now moves to the House side. Amending the Idaho Constitution requires two-thirds support in each house of the Legislature, followed by majority support from voters at the next general election; the governor doesn't weigh in.
Vick said he was prompted to propose the change to the Idaho Constitution because when he served in the Montana Legislature, that state had rules allowing for a poll of legislators for post-session overrides. Washington state lawmakers can take up a post-session override attempt at the start of the next session.
The Idaho Constitution says only the governor can call a special session of the Legislature, and special sessions are limited to only those topics named in the governor’s proclamation calling the session. Idaho’s last special session of the Legislature was in 2006, a one-day session called by then-Gov. Jim Risch to shift school funding from property tax to sales tax. Each day the Legislature is in session costs taxpayers an estimated $30,000.
Four “Add the Words” protesters, their hands covering their mouths and some holding photocopied pictures of two gay Idaho teens who committed suicide, have been standing silently in the center of the first-floor rotunda of the Capitol today. Former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour said she and two others did the same last night, and were arrested shortly before midnight when the building closed and they wouldn’t leave. She said the protesters didn’t realize the building would close. “Frankly, I brought my toothbrush – we were going to stay the night,” she said.
This morning, while LeFavour stood near the four protesters, a counter-protester angrily confronted her and began shouting louder and louder in her face; a uniformed Idaho State police officer soon beckoned him away. “I'm really grateful,” LeFavour said. “They're here to keep everybody safe.”
LeFavour said she thought last night was the fifth time she’s been arrested this year in protests pushing for civil rights protections for gays. Each charge, mostly for trespassing, can carry a $1,000 fine. “How do you put a price on something like this?” asked LeFavour, who was Idaho’s first openly gay state legislator. “We’re just waiting for the process to start,” she said. “Is it going to be productive to drag it into next session?”
Legislation to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act’s anti-discrimination protections has been proposed each year for the past eight years, but has never gotten a full committee hearing.
There have been other “Add the Words” protests this week as well, including brief “flash mobs” of people singing protest songs in Statehouse hallways; protesters reading their stories in the Statehouse rotunda; and silent vigils by protesters near Statehouse doorways. On Tuesday morning, 23 protesters were arrested after they blocked every entrance to Gov. Butch Otter’s office, keeping staffers and the governor himself from starting work in their offices that day until the protesters were removed. With the three additional arrests last night, that brings the total number of arrests this session in “Add the Words” protests to nearly 150.
Student leaders from Idaho colleges and universities delivered a six-inch-high stack of petitions and letters to Gov. Butch Otter this morning opposing SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill that passed the House yesterday, and urging Otter to veto the bill. Bryan Vlok, BSU student body president, said the student leaders have requested a meeting with Otter before he acts on the bill. “We haven’t heard back yet,” he said.
Today’s delivery to the governor’s office included 752 letters from students, petitions with 2,976 signatures, and letters from 126 Idaho faculty members, all opposing the bill.
With the Medicaid and Welfare Division budgets set, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has reached the end of its agency budget-setting schedule – a milestone. Typically, lawmakers can wrap up their legislative session as soon as two weeks after the end of agency budget-setting. JFAC’s work isn’t done, however. The joint committee has now started work on so-called “trailer bills” – bills that trail behind others that already are passing, to provide the funding called for in the fiscal notes on those bills.
Two are up today, and more will still be coming. The first one today is for SB 1329, regarding “time-sensitive emergencies” within the Emergency Medical Services program. This one actually doesn’t add any funding; it transfers it from one program to another, with no bottom-line impact. The second is larger: Following passage of HB 406, the state will move to take over primacy from the EPA for issuing wastewater permits under the federal Clean Water Act. The bill starts an eight-year phase-in of the takeover; next year, it will cost the state $300,000 in the DEQ budget, and require adding three employees. Eventually, the new program is expected to cost the state $2.5 million a year.
The primacy funding bill passed on a unanimous, 18-0 vote, though legislative budget analyst Ray Houston, asked by JFAC members if eventually some of the funding for the program might not come from fees or the federal government, said fees for municipalities are often a very political issue, and “Basically it does not look like the federal government would contribute any money.” He said, “I think it's safe to say that over the next eight years, the state is likely to pick up the most part of this $2.5 million.”
JFAC won't meet on Monday, but it will meet on Tuesday. Among items yet to be decided: Additional trailer bills; year-end transfers, including to state savings accounts; the request for $7.3 million for Idaho Education Network contractors in 2015 to replace missing federal e-rate funds; and recommendations from two interim committees on justice reinvestment and public defense.
Legislative budget writers have set a budget for Medicaid that reflects only 0.4 percent growth next year in total funds, 3.1 percent in state general funds. That’s in part because the “woodwork effect” of more people signing up for Medicaid who already were eligible, but just hadn’t realized it, hasn’t materialized to the extent it was expected to. “Medicaid numbers are flat,” budget analyst Jared Tatro told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who crafted the budget plan with Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, said the two slashed the funding for caseload increase in half from the governor’s recommended level. “We haven’t been seeing the growth that we were expecting from the woodwork,” Schmidt said. “We’re taking a bit of a risk. … It’s a budget for growth, but it’s not as much as they asked for.”
Because when people apply for health insurance plans on the state insurance exchange, they’re first evaluated for eligibility for Medicaid, the state anticipated lots of people “coming out of the woodwork” to sign up for Medicaid without any change in eligibility for the program. Thus far, Tatro said, those signing up for the Medicaid basic plan are up slightly, but numbers for the enhanced plan, for those with disabilities or special health needs, are “way down, and that’s the big expense driver.”
JFAC voted 17-2 in favor of the proposed budget, which totals $492 million in state general funds for next year, and $2.03 billion in total funds; just Sens. Nuxoll and Bayer dissented. Medicaid is funded roughly 70 percent by the federal government, and 30 percent by the state. It provides health coverage for the state’s disabled and poorest residents.
The joint budget committee also approved a budget for the Division of Welfare in the state Department of Health & Welfare, which includes the process of determining eligibility for Medicaid. That budget shows a slight decrease in state funds, but a 5.9 percent increase in federal funds, largely because of the $11.8 million federally funded project to integrate the eligibility determination system with changes in Idaho’s insurance exchange. In its first year, the state exchange has used the federal eligibility determination system, but next year, it will be transitioning to a state-operated eligibility system. That budget cleared JFAC on a 15-4 vote, with just Sens. Nuxoll, Bayer, Mortimer and Thayn dissenting.
Sen. Dean Cameron’s “Option 1” intent language for the public school budget – which lets school districts opt out of a statewide high school WiFi contract that state schools Supt. Tom Luna signed with Education Networks of America and get alternative funding for their own high school WiFi networks if they do – has passed JFAC on a 15-5 vote, after Sen. Dean Mortimer’s alternative proposal failed on a close 9-11 vote.
The five “no” votes on Cameron’s motion came from Sens. Mortimer, Vick, Bayer, Thayn and Nuxoll. On Mortimer’s motion, supporters included those five plus Reps. Eskridge, Youngblood, Thompson and Stevenson, but that was still short of a majority.
Cameron said the JFAC co-chairs and vice-chairs met with Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane to go over options, and simply canceling the contract through non-appropriation at this point turned out to be a risky course. “Unfortunately, you’d probably spend as much in legal costs defending that decision, based on the lack of information we have, as you would in paying for the contract, so that didn’t seem to be a wise choice,” Cameron said. “Our legal counsel impressed upon us that what we really needed to do was make a good-faith effort, gather information, and then make appropriate decisions down the road. … That’s what Option 1 attempts to do.”
He noted that under that option, the state could end up paying more next year, if some districts opt out and ask for funding, when the contractor has already been paid. If that occurs, the funding would come from the Public Education Stabilization Fund.
Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said, “We have a contract with a provider. … We’re saying we’re allowing you to withdraw. I’m wondering how that would violate the contract, how that works out.”
Cameron noted that schools Superintendent Tom Luna has letters amending the contract from its original flat-fee, $2.25 million annual payment to a per-school payment for services rendered. “I would remind the committee this is one-time money,” Cameron said. “This is a one-year appropriation, with one-year intent language. At the end, next year we would be able to make a decision as to how to proceed – whether to continue with the contract, or whether to do something completely different. … We’ll have a better defensible position.”
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, is arguing for Option 1 on high school WiFi network funding – which would let school districts opt out of the statewide contract with Education Networks of America if they want, and get state funding for their own networks. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, is arguing for Option 1, which would continue the statewide contract and pay districts that didn’t sign on for that, but not give any funding to districts that already are in the contract but don’t want to continue.
Mortimer said, “They voluntarily opted in, they said they were willing to work with the state. … They all said, ‘This is what we want.’” He said, “I believe that in good faith the state put forth the contract, the districts opted in, and it is important to keep that contract.”
Cameron said, “In discussing this with our legal counsel, the least expensive option is to fund the contract and do nothing else.” But that doesn’t do anything for those districts that opted not to participate, he noted, or those that aren’t satisfied with the services they get.
Cameron’s proposal calls for a “service audit” to see what services are being provided where, what they cost, and how satisfied districts are with them. Then, he said, next year the state can decide what it wants to do about the contract, with full information at hand. He noted that the funding, like this year’s funding, is one-time only – meaning JFAC will have to consider it again next year. “There’s a fundamental difference between the two options, although the good news is we’re talking about wireless for all the schools,” Cameron said.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is looking at two possible options on intent language for the public schools budget this morning with regard to state high school WiFi networks: One would allow school districts to “opt out” of the current long-term, statewide contract, and get a share of the funding for their own WiFi networks, while continuing the contract for those who want to stay in; the other would provide funding to districts that haven’t already opted into the contract, but wouldn’t give any money to those that already are in but want out; it also would continue the contract.
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna signed the five- to 15-year contract with Education Networks of America over the summer, based on a one-time appropriation from JFAC last year.
The Idaho Falls Post Register has a report today about how Gov. Butch Otter ended up appearing in what eventually turned out to be a soft-core porn movie, years after he agreed to provide horses to a California movie crew working on a “low-budget horse opera” that was filming near Weiser. Reporters Nate Sunderland and Jeff Robinson report that the movie, which began filming in 1993, was released straight to video as an R-rated film in 1997 and rereleased as unrated in 2003; DVDs of the film remain for sale on Amazon.
Staffers for Otter said the final version, which they hadn't seen, apparently is nothing like the film Otter signed on for; then the state’s lieutenant governor, he acted the part of a sheriff in a few scenes in the film, none of which contained any explicit content or themes. The other content apparently was added years later.
A federal judge says a whistleblower lawsuit against the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections can move forward in court on some of the claims it raises, charging that young prisoners at a Nampa juvenile detention facility were sexually abused by staffers, and agency leaders not only didn't effectively act to stop the abuse, but retaliated against workers who complained about that and other problems at the lockup. “This is a whistleblower case,” wrote U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in a Thursday ruling. “The 10 plaintiffs — employees at the Nampa facility operated by the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections — claim they suffered retaliation when they protested unsafe conditions at the facility. They claim that the retaliation was designed to suppress their protected speech and prevent the public from finding out about deplorable conditions at the facility that placed juvenile inmates in danger.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
The Senate has spent lots of time in session today, and is still going now, at a quarter to 6 p.m. Boise time. Among the bills it’s passed this afternoon: HB 504, the measure to give $15.8 million in leadership bonuses to Idaho teachers next year. The bill, which previously passed the House on a 62-6 vote, passed the Senate unanimously, and now goes to Gov. Butch Otter. The only opposition in either house came from six House Republicans, Reps. Barbieri, Barrett, Dayley, Harris, McMillan and Sims.
The bonuses are a small piece of the recommendation from Otter’s education improvement task force to sharply increase teacher pay in the state, mostly by developing a new career ladder and tiered licensure system. That’s still in the works and won’t happen this year, but the bonuses piece was simpler. In addition to HB 504 passing both houses unanimously, the funding for the bonuses was included in the public school budget set earlier this week by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.
You can read my full story here at spokesman.com on today’s final passage of SB 1254, the bill to allow guns on Idaho’s public college and university campuses, though the colleges don’t want them and strenuously opposed the bill. It now goes to Gov. Butch Otter, who already has said he supports it on Second Amendment grounds.
Frustrated student leaders from the state’s campuses, who had delivered petitions with more than 3,000 signatures against the bill to lawmakers a day earlier, said lawmakers dismissed opposition from all eight public university presidents, the state Board of Education, faculty senates and student associations. “Who does this legislature represent?” asked Megan Greco, vice president of the Student Association of the College of Western Idaho. “The answer is clear: Lobbyists, and apparently, themselves.”
Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, said today that he’s sticking to his determination not to give House-passed legislation to cut individual and corporate income tax rates a hearing in his committee. “I’m sticking to my guns,” Siddoway said. “If we properly fund education and our public safety requirements, we have to have that money.”
He said he may support depositing more money into state rainy-day savings accounts as “a conservative way to handle money.” But, he said, “We can’t cut taxes and fund everything.” He’s still holding out hope for his favored tax cut – an expansion of the property tax exemption on business property that lawmakers passed last year; last year’s exemption eliminated the tax for the vast majority of Idaho businesses. But that measure would have to start in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee, he noted. “First we’ll see if we can get enough horses to pull it out of there,” Siddoway said. “It has to start in that House committee.”
HB 548, the income tax cut bill, passed the House on a 54-13 vote on Monday; it has 37 co-sponsors, all house Republicans, including House Speaker Scott Bedke and Majority Leader Mike Moyle. It would phase in $126 million in tax cuts over the next six years.