Conservative senators last week killed a bill to use $61 million in annual endowment money to replace and repair school buildings in Idaho.
The Senate Education Committee vote effectively derails the one proposal that came from a House-Senate work group, which spent the fall studying the state’s facilities backlog. It also means the 2023 Legislature might not address the state of Idaho’s school buildings — an issue that has gone largely unanswered for decades.
Senate Bill 1103 was not billed as a cure-all to address a building backlog that, according to a recent state study, runs in excess of $800 million. But the bill represented a chance for the Legislature to “show some movement” on the issue, said Senate Education Chairman Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, the bill’s sponsor, and the co-chairman of the facilities work group.
The bill would have earmarked the public schools’ annual share from state endowment land proceeds — now roughly $61 million. The schools get that money now, and it goes into the operations portion of the K-12 budget. There, the money helps pay for transportation, health insurance and classified employee salaries, and goes into the schools’ pot of discretionary money.
In essence, SB 1103 would have shifted the $61 million into facilities.
Committee members suggested the schools could find facilities money elsewhere.
After hearing testimony from Anna Miller of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative group opposing SB 1103, committee members asked why schools are sitting on budget reserves that could pay for buildings.
Lent and Idaho School Boards Association Deputy Director Quinn Perry said the reserves are designed to head off program cuts during a downturn. Perry said the reserve money wouldn’t go far in addressing a district’s building needs.
“It’s unlikely to fix all of the deferred maintenance and it’s certainly not enough to build a new school," she said.
Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, pointed to another funding source: the $80 million earmarked for Idaho Launch, Gov. Brad Little’s plan to create $8,500 in postsecondary incentives for every high school graduate. The bill narrowly passed the House and has not moved in the Senate. Herndon, an outspoken opponent of Idaho Launch, said money from this program could be diverted into buildings instead.
Fellow committee conservatives agreed, killing SB 1103 on a 5-4 vote.
As lawmakers left the committee room dais, Lent stopped at Herndon’s chair.
“You didn’t need to do that,” a visibly upset Lent said to Herndon.
In separate interviews with Idaho Education News, both senators held their ground.
“I don’t think he’s pleased with the result, but I honestly think there’s a solution here,” said Herndon, again pointing to the Idaho Launch money.
Lent suggested Herndon was singling out Idaho Launch, when there are other ways to juggle Idaho’s school funding priorities.
“A lot of legislators put a lot of time and energy into trying to get a workable solution,” Lent said. “This didn’t need to be this way.”
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