HB 743, the Republican House leadership’s bill to address school facility funding, cleared the House Education Committee this morning on a 16-2 vote, after a Democratic alternative, HB 691, failed on a 4-14 vote. Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, said, “I don’t think either bill is perfect, but we need to address a problem. I like first steps that are not huge, and I like to be able to pay for what we’re going to walk into.”
But Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, a sponsor of HB 743, cautioned, “I don’t want to mislead the committee. In 25 years our numbers are going to look a lot like 691. … We are going to be ramping up to a greater and greater ongoing cost. … Have no illusions, my colleagues – this is going to cost the state of Idaho a lot more money.” That’s because a bond levy equalization program that was approved three years ago – and has yet to be funded, other than through sidetracking lottery funds that school districts already had been receiving – would be fully funded under the bill. It covers only new bond issues, so the cost starts small, but rises in future years as more bonds are passed.
The GOP plan directs about $5 million in new ongoing money to school maintenance next year, while also requiring districts to invest more into maintenance. It also creates a $25 million loan fund to rebuild unsafe schools – but only after the state takes over a school district, appoints a supervisor who can fire the district superintendent, and orders a no-vote property tax increase to pay back the money after district voters have specifically rejected the idea twice.
The Democratic plan would have created a $35 million fund to fix unsafe schoolhouses on an emergency basis, with school districts paying back the money through one of several options, but included no state takeovers or no-vote tax increases. It did, however, put about $60 million a year in new ongoing state money into school building maintenance and construction, in part to match a portion of bond payments for all existing and future school bonds that voters around the state pass.
The Legislature is under an Idaho Supreme Court order to fix the state’s property-tax-heavy system for financing school construction, which the court declared unconstitutional. Rep. Joe Cannon, R-Blackfoot, asked, “Assuming that our past funding practices is what got us in court, how do you justify telling the court that your plan does not go back and correct past indiscretions?”
Committee Chairman Jack Barraclough, R-Idaho Falls, said the state can’t afford to go back and subsidize existing bond issues, as the Democratic plan proposed. “Of course if you spend more money, it’s going to benefit more school districts, but if we can’t afford it…” he said.
House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, also a sponsor of HB 743, was pleased the bill came out of committee, but said, “This is only the start of the process. I predict that it will pass on the floor, and hopefully it has as good luck in the Senate.”