Idaho House rejects $40M in federal funds for COVID-19 testing in schools

Legislative session appears likely to continue into May

The Idaho State Capitol reflected in the Joe R. Williams building on March 21, 2021.
The Idaho State Capitol reflected in the Joe R. Williams building on March 21, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The roller coaster ride that is setting the 2022 state budget continued Tuesday as legislators rewrote two major education budget bills and then the Idaho House rejected $40 million in separate, federal funding for COVID-19 testing in schools. 

Meanwhile, the Idaho Senate took its third recess of the session and does not plan to meet again until Friday morning. 

All of that signals the longest session in the past 10 years is likely to continue into May.

Education budgets rewritten

 It took the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee less than an hour Tuesday to rewrite two major budgets that the Idaho House of Representatives rejected earlier this month.

First up, JFAC members rewrote the $1.1 billion public school budget for teachers salaries that the Idaho House of Representatives killed April 13. Conservative Republicans that killed the budget said they were concerned about social justice and critical race theory teachings entering Idaho classrooms or being presented to teachers during training. 

To address those concerns, Republican legislators drafted and passed House Bill 377, which prohibits schools from forcing students to adopt any beliefs about sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin. 

The Senate’s vote to pass that bill Monday seemed to grease the skids for the school budget for teacher salaries to pass out of JFAC in less than 10 minutes. Legislators actually increased funding for teacher training by $1 million compared to the original budget bill that died. 

Next up, JFAC cut the $315 million higher education budget by $2.5 million and rewrote it. The Idaho House killed the first version of the higher education budget April 7 after legislators complained about social justice and diversity and inclusivity programs, particularly at Boise State University. The budget bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, even took the unusual step of asking legislators to kill the budget at the time. 

On Tuesday morning, Amador led the push to reduce funding by $2.5 million from the higher education budget, “to remove state support for social justice programming.”

I have the honor of carrying a budget for higher ed that probably makes really no one happy, but it’s threading a very small hole in a needle that we need to accomplish to support our colleges and universities,” Amador said. 

The new, rewritten budgets still need to pass the House and the Senate and be passed into law by Gov. Brad Little. 

Idaho House rejects funding for COVID-19 testing 

During its floor session Tuesday the Idaho House of Representatives killed a bill that would have provided $40.3 million in federal stimulus funding for optional COVID-19 testing in schools.

Senate Bill 1210 was an additional budget bill for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Public Health Services. The money for the COVID-19 testing was going to come from federal funds already allocated to Idaho through the American Rescue Plan Act 2021 stimulus package. 

Conservative Republicans ended up killing the bill.

“Forty million to pay for lab tests? I have a problem with this in our schools,” Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said. “This is just more government; it’s more data collection on our kids.”

Rep. Karey Hanks, a St. Anthony Republican who works as a school bus driver, said the $40.3 million for testing in schools “is a very low priority, as far as I am concerned.”

The bill failed 41-28, with all 12 Democrats voting for it.

“I am surprised at the amount of pushback this is getting; I’ve been hearing all session we need kids back in schools,” Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, said. “This is the money that is going to be able to keep them in school all year.”

 Senate calls for a third recess

The Idaho Senate went at recess Tuesday afternoon and is not scheduled to reconvene until 8 a.m. Friday. 

Once again, Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, said the Senate cannot move forward to address unresolved issues until the House passes the state budget bills backed up on its agenda.

With the House Ethics Committee meeting Wednesday for a hearing on the sexual assault complaint brought against Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, the House is not planning a floor session Wednesday. That means the House won’t touch the state budgets and there isn’t much for the Senate to do.

“It is our intention to speedily finish up the people’s business here in Boise, but to do so, we have to be careful that as we approach the finish of this session that we take care of the finances of the people of Idaho,” Anthon said on the Senate floor. “And once we have the budgets passed we will know what is left for us to consider tax cuts, transportation spending and property tax matters.”

This is the third recess of the 2021 session. The entire Legislature took a 17-day recess March 19 following a COVID-19 outbreak in the Idaho House. The Senate took a four-day recess April 14 after Anthon first said the Senate cannot move forward until the Idaho House passes the remaining state budget bills.

One of the longest legislative sessions in Idaho history continues

Tuesday was the 107th day of the 2021 session, which is the longest in the past 10 years.

Due to the Senate’s recess and the state budget still being unresolved, the session appears likely to continue into next week.

The Legislature is required to set a balanced budget and have it in place for the first day of the state’s new fiscal year on July 1. 

The longest session in state history ran for 118 days in 2003. 

If the session continues beyond next week the 2021 session would break the record on May 9, which is a Sunday and extremely unlikely to feature any meetings or floor sessions.