By Zach Hagadone
The powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a budget for Idaho public schools March 3, amounting to $1.977 billion in fiscal year 2021 state funding.
Representing almost 50% of Idaho’s general fund spending each year, the FY2021 schools budget is $78.7 million, or 4.1%, higher, than last year’s appropriation — what Statehouse watchers at idahoednews.org pointed out was the smallest increase to school funding in five years.
However, additional funding may flow to Idaho public education if senators approve House Bill 523, which Gov. Brad Little has fronted to funnel $223 million into veteran teachers’ salaries over five years. If HB 523 clears the Senate — as it has already met with approval in the House — and is signed into law, it would contribute an additional $8 million to the FY2021 budget and bring the overall spending increase to 4.6% above last year.
Broken into seven separate budgets, which will now have to be voted on individually by both chambers of the Legislature, they include salaries, health insurance costs and professional development; funding to keep pace with growth in classrooms; and support for the K-3 literacy initiative and advanced opportunities program.
“This is still a very solid budget for our public schools,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, who serves as JFAC vice chairwoman.
Legislation introduced March 4 by Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg, requiring Idaho counties to contribute to funding Medicaid expansion is headed for a hearing March 6 before the House Health and Welfare Committee.
House Bill 600 would eliminate county indigent health care programs and channel a portion of county sales tax revenue to shoulder 30% of the state’s share in the cost of Medicaid expansion — amounting to between $8.5 million and $12.3 million per year, depending on enrollment.
While counties would lose some sales tax funds previously allocated via state-wide revenue sharing, bill sponsor Raybould estimates that counties will realize savings from cutting indigent programs, which would happen after one year. According to the bill’s fiscal note, counties have paid an average $20.24 million per year in medical indigency costs since fiscal year 2013. In the first year after the indigency programs are abolished, HB 600 pegs savings to counties at $7.9 million to $11.7 million state-wide.
The state Catastrophic Health Care Cost Program would also be eliminated on June 30, 2021. Under the current system, county property taxes pick up the first $11,000 in bills incurred by residents who are unable to cover their catastrophic medical costs while the Catastrophic Health Care Cost Program takes care of the rest. Under Raybould’s bill, the Department of Health and Welfare would take over administration of payouts and repayments from the Catastrophic Fund after July 2021, amounting to an estimated ongoing cost to the department of $70,000 per year.
Beyond the 30% county contribution proposed by HB 600, Gov. Little’s has proposed the remainder of the state’s share in funding Medicaid expansion in Idaho — amounting to $41 million — would be covered by a combination of monies from the Millennium Fund and savings from other state budgets. Meanwhile, the federal government pays for 90% of the program.
Child abuse bill defeated
Blanchard Republican Rep. Heather Scott’s proposal to do away with some penalties for failing to report suspected child abuse failed March 3 in the House on a vote of 25-42, with three lawmakers absent.
House Bill 455a would have limited the requirement to report instances of suspected child abuse to certain health care providers, law enforcement, educators and social workers. Current Idaho law requires anyone, regardless of profession, to report evidence of child abuse, abandonment or neglect or face a misdemeanor charge.
Opponents of the bill included both Republicans and Democrats, including House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star; and Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise. Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, voted in favor.
A bill from Reps. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, and Christy Zito, R-Hammett, to prohibit Idaho public dollars from going to abortion providers made it through the House in a dramatically uneven vote March 3, with 52 in favor, 17 against and one legislator absent.
House Bill 525 seeks to “prohibit the transfer or expenditure of public monies to any individual or organization which is a provider of abortion services, except where the prohibition is expressly not permitted by federal law.”
As reported by the Idaho Falls Post Register, HB 525 goes beyond current restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortions except in cases of mortal threat to the mother or pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, taking away public funding for unrelated services including cancer screenings or gynecological exams by entities that also perform abortions.
Prohibiting Medicaid support for non-abortion related services would mean the loss of about $400,000 a year in funding for cancer screenings and exams at Idaho’s three Planned Parenthood clinics — and one doctor in Boise.
Every Democrat in the House voted against the bill, but were joined by three Republicans, including Rep. Scott, who earlier fronted legislation to outlaw all abortions regardless of circumstances and make abortion proscutable as murder. That bill is not expected to make it out of committee during the 2020 session.
HB 525 now heads to the Senate floor.
Grocery tax credit
A third reading for House Bill 494, which would increase the grocery tax credit from $120 to $135 for Idahoans of all ages, has been delayed for the sixth time in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
The committee held off on a third reading March 3, scheduling the bill to be heard on Friday, March 6.
According to bill sponsors, Idahoans pay an average of $124 per year in sales tax on groceries, while HB 494 would “essentially offset the sales tax paid on groceries by all Idaho citizens.”
Sponsors, which include Speaker Bedke and Majority Leader Moyle, claim the credit will be funded from the state’s Tax Relief Fund, offset by a reduction of $1 million from the fund — bringing it from $49 million to $48 million.
Guns in schools
A bill introduced March 2 and referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee would allow school district employees — defined as anyone on the payroll, elected or appointed, though not independent contractors — to carry concealed weapons on school property, provided they have an enhanced concealed carry license.
Senate Bill 1384 further stipulates that “school property” includes sites or facilities “owned, used or leased” by a public or public charter district, elementary or secondary school.
Requirements in SB 1384 state that those carrying a properly licensed concealed weapon — including a firearm — must be in “immediate control” of the weapon, meaning it is concealed within an individual’s clothing and not easily accessible by others. What’s more, no employee who elects to carry a concealed weapon can be compelled to disclose that he or she is doing so, except to law enforcement officials should they be conducting an investigation in which that information would be relevant.
Employees who carry properly licensed concealed weapons need only to inform the principal of the school and district superintendent, and provide them with a copy of the enhanced license. Officials may share that information with the school board, but are required to maintain the confidentiality of those employees who are armed and copies of their licenses are not to be stored in their personnel files.
While no employee may be forced to carry a concealed weapon, no public school in the state would be allowed to display signage indicating the property is a “gun-free zone.”
The bill was reported printed March 3 and remains with the Senate State Affairs Committee.
For more information — including full bill texts, agendas and status updates — go to legislature.idaho.gov.
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