Monthly Archives: February 2016

Idaho Legislature: Education Issues Abound

by Nishant Mohan

Idaho Public Radio

State Capitol Bureau

Education issues have remained at the forefront of the Idaho State Legislature in recent days. Here’s a rundown of the issues.

Medical Education

Idaho Governor Butch Otter announced that a public-private partnership would lead to the building of Idaho’s first four year medical school. The school will be built in Meridian on property leased from Idaho State University. Earlier, JFAC approved five more Idaho seats in the WWAMI program, the medical education program at the University of Idaho run in partnership with the University of Washington medical school.

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(Idaho Governor Butch Otter makes the medical school announcement. Nishant Mohan photo)

Community College

The Senate Education Committee voted 7-2 Thursday in favor of a bill that would establish a start-up account to convert Eastern Idaho Technical College to a community college.

“Anytime we can work to make education more affordable and allow people to avail themselves of opportunities, I think that’s a good idea,” said Rep. Neil Anderson of the possibility of his area having access to a community college closer to home.

Rep. Julie VanOrden, who sits on the House Education Committee, also spoke favorably of the possibility of the school getting an upgrade, saying it could provide more people from her area the opportunity to have the experience she did at the College of Southern Idaho.

“I think it will be very beneficial,” she said. “The people as well as the business have asked for it. Businesses need educated employees.”

VanOrden also said the college could particularly help the Hispanic population, who she said are already at a disadvantage due to a language barrier and economic status.

“The demographics of higher education do not reflect the demographics of our community in Idaho,” she said.


School Safety

A public school security bill passed the House Education Committee Friday, and will move to the floor.

The bill, by Rep. Wendy Horman, would create an Office of School Safety and Security and a Safety and Security Advisory Board.

Marsing School District Superintendent Norm Stewart, who testified in favor of the bill, said his community does not have its own law enforcement and instead contracts with the Owyhee County Sheriff’s Department.

Stewart said the Department is spread thin, with only twelve full-time officers and two part-time officers to cover 7,697 square miles. He said they perform their job to the best of their abilities but that the job is an enormous undertaking.

“My first year as superintendent, we had an intruder who was being chased by law enforcement. He was able to find a door that didn’t close properly and was in the building for about two minutes before he left and was apprehended. It brought even more attention to the fact that even though we have our safety protocols, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

Public School Funding

Horman has been active on the education front in other areas this week, presenting a House concurrent resolution to the Senate Education Committee asking that a committee be appointed to study the public school funding formula.

“It became apparent that it was probably time to take an overall, big-picture look at a formula that was built in 1994, before charter schools and online education were there,” said Horman, who sits on the Joint Finance- Appropriations Committee, which sets the annual budget. “Our current formula does not recognize that the cost of a playground supervisor and a network administrator are different.”

Idaho’s student populations have changed, with more English Language Learners and special education students, and learning environments have changed as well, with large amounts of schooling available to students online, especially in rural areas.

“Those changes have impacted our budget,” Horman said. “We can’t fit it on an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper anymore.”

She said the committee likely should consist of the Superintendent, another State Board member and legislators.

“We know we cannot solve this problem without the expertise of our teachers and administrators,” Horman said. “It will need to be inclusive.”

Achievement Gap

Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, told lawmakers that Hispanics, “fastest growing population of students in Idaho, have significant achievement gap.”

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(Margie Gonzalez of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs updates lawmakers. Nishant Mohan photo)

Rural Education Centers

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s Rural Education Centers plan has been absent from education committee discussions.

Ybarra’s plan, which is the most striking difference between her budget request for public education and Gov. Otter’s proposal, would create staffing resources such as reading coaches or nurses that could be shared between schools that would pay only for what they need. Ybarra requested $300,000 for a pilot program.

While speaking in front of the budget committee Feb 16, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt alluded to draft legislation which he said lacked detail, but no such legislation has surfaced.


Posted February 28, 2016


Idaho Lawmakers Debate ‘Right to Try’

by Taylor Nadauld

Idaho Public Radio

State Capitol Bureau

A bill that would allow patients with a terminal diagnosis to try investigational drugs has been sent to the House floor for approval.

On Tuesday, the House Health and Welfare Committee passed a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to voluntarily try investigational drugs tested by the Federal Drug Administration.


(The committee discusses H 481. Photo by Taylor Nadauld)

House Bill 481 – sponsored by Representative Melissa Wintrow (D), District 19 – is more commonly known as the Right to Try Act, and resembles similar bills in other states across the country which allow patients to take further measures to save their own lives through investigative medications.

Kurt Altman of the Goldwater Institute – a conservative and libertarian think tank based in Arizona – testified in favor of the bill, saying it would not harm the clinical trial process.

“Right to Try allows people who are unable to get into those clinical trials as a last resort to access those medications.”

Altman said the right to try is currently legal in 24 states across the nation.

The bill’s statement of purpose says it would “release[s] liability from physicians, hospitals, insurers, and any other person and clear[s] the way for patients to work with manufacturers under the recommendation of a physician to try an investigational medication.”

Enactment of the legislation would have no fiscal impact to the General Fund.

The bill faced bipartisan opposition from the mostly Republican committee. Chairman Fred Wood, (R), District 27, and Representative John Rusche (D), District 6, both voted “no” on a motion to send the bill to the floor with a do-pass recommendation – the only two to vote in opposition. The remaining Republicans and Representative Sue Chew (D), District 17 voted in favor for a 8-2 ratio.

Rep. Rusche, a retired physician, said he saw liability issues in the future if the drugs have negative side effects.

“One of the things that bothers me is that you really don’t know what the complications associated with the drug are until after you’ve completed the Phase 2 and Phase 3 studies,” Rep. Rusche said.

The bill also faced bipartisan support from a full audience.

Matthew Keenan of the Idaho Freedom Foundation – a conservative think tank – represented the organization in voicing his support for Rep. Wintrow’s bill.

Idaho Freedom Foundation also took to its Twitter account to publicly support the legislation.

“We are proud to Stand for Right to Try,” a tweet from the organization said on Tuesday.

The bill’s statement of purpose argues the right to try would “dramatically reduce paperwork, wait times, bureaucracy, and would potentially save lives.” Most testimonies expanded on the the latter benefit.

Rep. Kelley Packer (R), District 28, praised Rep. Wintrow for her work on the bill and voted to move it to the floor.

“I do believe that we have a responsibility to ensure the safety of Idaho citizens,” Rep. Packer said, “but we also have the responsibility, when those safety tests have been performed, to get out of the way and allow those people the right to try if there is nothing else available to them.”

The bill has been filed go to the full House for its third reading, and held over on the calendar for Monday, February 29th.

Posted February 28, 2016


The Bible in Idaho Schools

by Taylor Nadauld

Idaho Public Radio

State Capitol Bureau

The Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday sent a bill off for amendments that would codify the legality of Bible references in Idaho public schools.

Senate bill 1342, sponsored by District 7 Senator Sheryl Nuxoll (R), would spell out a right already legal in Idaho to reference the Bible in public schools. The bill would not require students to use religious texts for reference purposes if they or their parents objected.

“Everyone should have the right to believe what they want to believe,” Sen. Nuxoll said. “This is not mandating anything.”


(Senators listen during Friday’s hearing. Taylor Nadauld photo)

The bill passed the Senate Education Committee last week with opposition from Senator Janie Ward-Engelking (D), District 18, who questioned whether the bill would spark a need for other bills to be drafted that codify the legality of referencing other religious texts.

The bill includes a list of appropriate classes for the Bible to be referenced for the purpose of furthering study, including astronomy, geology, and biology – a specificity Senator Todd Lakey (R), District 12, took issue with in the State Affairs Committee.

Sen. Lakey proposed the bill be amended to strike the words “astronomy, geology, biology,” saying the use of the Bible in those contexts could promote the teaching of creationism in class. Sen. Nuxoll said she would be willing to strike proposed the language from the bill.

Kathy Griesmeyer, public policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, testified against the bill for similar reasons as Sen. Lakey, saying the use of the Bible is best restricted to courses where teachers are presenting in context with other like pieces, such as comparative religion or literature classes.

“Creationism and the Bible have no place in public school science classes, and legislation that permits otherwise raises serious constitutional issues,” Griesmeyer said.

Sen. Nuxoll said she would be willing to strike the hard sciences from the bill.

Senator Bart Davis (R), District 33, and Senator Chuck Winder (R), District 20, were also hesitant to accept the bill as is.

Both asked Sen. Nuxoll whether she would be willing to add the term “religious texts” to the legislation to ensure all religious texts, including the Bible, would be allowed as references in school.

The committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the 14th order for the recommended amendments.

Posted February 26, 2016



Rural Education Centers Proposed in Idaho

by Nishant Mohan

Idaho Public Radio

State Capitol Bureau

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra has presented state lawmakers with a proposal to create Rural Education Centers to offer resources to rural schools they currently lack. Some lawmakers are looking for more details.

“We have all these services in Idaho, yet they’re not getting down to the kids,” Ybarra said on February 10th.

Ybarra was accompanied by Rich McBride, a superintendent from Washington state who started his career in a 100-student school district. McBride said rural education centers are “equitable and efficient.” He said he has worked with educators from rural areas around the country to develop these policies.

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(Sup. of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and Rich McBride before Idaho lawmakers on Feb. 10th. Nishant Mohan photo)

Ybarra requested $300,000 for a pilot program. She said the schools would pay for the services, while the center would house and coordinate sharing of staff and resources. She said a “menu” would be created for superintendents to choose from; districts would pay for only what they use.

Ybarra’s Chief Communications Officer, Jeff Church, said they are looking at north Idaho to start the pilot program because educators there voiced interest in rural education centers during the superintendent’s listening tours.

Rep. Sage Dixon, District 1, said superintendents from the districts in his area have expressed interest in the plan, especially in the possibility of having better access to psychologists and, if new literacy requirements are passed, a reading specialist.

“I was concerned about creating another layer of bureaucracy,” Dixon said. “But but since the districts will pay for it, it shouldn’t expand.”

He said he thinks districts have difficulty sharing resources without a plan like this because of fear of losing resources they have invested in or expending their resources to the benefit of those competing for funding. He said he is optimistic this plan would provide a way to share in resources without that competition and hesitancy.

“I think it’s going to be great,” he said.

Rep. Jim Guthrie, District 28, said he also likes the idea of sharing expertise among districts.

“Not all the rural schools have a full complement of teachers,” Guthrie said.

He said the state requires schools hire more teachers than the state is funding.

“People pass levies, basically recognizing that’s not enough, voting a tax on themselves,” Guthrie said.

Some legislators have expressed concerns that the plan lacks detail.

“I saw a piece of legislation yesterday,” House Education Committee Chair Rep. Reed Demordaunt said to JFAC, the joint budget committee, February 16th. “I believe it makes some good steps, but I do believe it was lacking in some detail.”

Rep Merrill Beyeler said he has his own plan in the works.

Beyeler said his plan would be to hire career advisors, similar to career counselors, who would help students in areas isolated from higher education know their options.

“I want to make sure every child has vision of a pathway to a living wage,” Beyeler said.

He said his plan would derive funding from the budgets of the Departments of Labor and Commerce in addition to the Department of Education. He said this would involve parts of the government whose mandates overlap with the purpose of his plan. However, he said he has no plans for the money to have strings attached.

He also said he wants to provide a “front door” for businesses to work with schools similar to their work with career-technical schools.

Posted February 21, 2016


What’s Next in Idaho’s Health Care Debate?

by Nishant Mohan

Idaho Public Radio

State Capitol Bureau

The Idaho House State Affairs Committee voted 8-6 on Monday, February 15th, against introducing a partial funding bill for the proposed Primary Care Access Program, or PCAP.

The legislation would have directed that funding from the Millennium Fund–tobacco settlement funds–be used as an ongoing, partial funding source for PCAP.

The vote put in jeopardy the proposed program and the approximately 78,000 Idahoans supporters say it would affect.

Two days after that vote, Idaho House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood spoke to the Joint Finance- Appropriations Committee about the estimated 78,000 Idahoans who fall into a healthcare coverage gap.


(Rep. Fred Wood speaks to JFAC on Feb. 17th. Nishant Mohan photo)

He told the budget writers that H & W “unanimously agreed what is currently happening is unfair and wrong.” He said an answer needs to be found.

Medicaid expansion, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal government could not require, is seen by many lawmakers as off the table.

“I’m not in favor of Medicaid,” Rep. Rich Wills has said. “We said from the beginning we want to be in control.”

If the future of PCAP is uncertain, and Medicaid expansion is a non- starter for many lawmakers, the question in Idaho’s health care debate is: what, if anything, happens next?

“For the poor, bad health is a determinant of what their ability to escape poverty is,” Department of Health and Welfare Director Richard Armstrong has said. Armstrong worked with Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter and House Health and Welfare Committee Chair Rep. Fred Wood to create the alternative to medicaid expansion.

Lawmakers have asked Armstrong questions about cost, how PCAP compares to Medicaid expansion options and how to fund the program.

“My job is to try to develop products that this body would be willing to move forward with,” Armstrong said in response to questions on how to get a funding bill passed. “I’ve developed six over the last four years and I may not be done developing products.”


Armstrong has presented data depicting how Idahoans on benefits act, which he said he hoped would help break stereotypes of the population lawmakers and the public might have.

“There is this myth in the U.S. that once you go on welfare, you stay on it,” Armstrong said. “That’s only 4% of recipients. Living on $1000 a month is no honor, and nobody strives to be there.”

About 65 percent of the 50,000 people in the gap the Department has data on are employed, according to Health and Welfare Public Information Director Tom Shanahan.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett said she thinks stories from constituents and from the public at hearings are what have been changing more conservative lawmakers’ minds on the need to care for the population in the health care coverage gap.

“We’ve been talking about that gap for quite a long time, probably the last three years,” Stennett said. “So really it has been a resistance within the legislature not to entertain it.”

Posted February 21, 2016




The Push for Education

by Taylor Nadauld

Idaho Public Radio

State Capitol Bureau

Idaho House and Senate Education Committee chairmen made their pitches to the Joint Finance and Appropriation Committee last week, laying a more focused foundation for the legislature’s education priorities this session.


Senator Dean M. Mortimer (R), District 30, quoted one sentence from every member of the Senate Education Committee in his presentation, some general, some stating specific desired priorities for the rest of the session.

Senator Mary Souza (R), District 4, said “Put the dollars in the classroom.”

Senator Kelly A. Anthon (R), District 27 had a more specific request.

“Support our teachers through investment in the career ladder, restore discretionary spending to 2009 levels, and increase technology in our schools,” Sen. Anthon said.

Senator Dan J Schmidt (D), District 5, reminded Sen. Mortimer that JFAC is a budgeting committee, and said it sounded like the committee wanted everything funded.

In his State of the State address, Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter called for a 7.9% increase in public school funding, an increase that would bring funding back to 2009 levels.

Democrats have criticized the governor’s proposal, saying 2009 levels are good, but not sufficient for today’s economy.

“We cannot compete in today’s economy if we’re still trying to catch up with 2009,” Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett (D), District 26 said.

In contrast, Representative Reed DeMordaunt (R), the House Education Committee chair, said in his presentation to JFAC that he does not know if 2009 numbers are the right numbers for education spending.

“There’s nothing magical about 2009, other than that’s the most we’ve ever paid,” Rep. DeMordaunt said.

During this session, the House Education Committee has heard from representatives supporting mastery-based education, a system of education that would base a student’s progress off of mastery of skills rather than their age or time spent in the classroom.

“That’s really the education of the future, is mastery based education,” Rep. DeMordaunt told JFAC.

JFAC approved $47,852,700 in total education spending on Thursday, as well as a 3% base salary increase for public school staff.

Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee continued to hear new ideas in education, many of them echoing the governor’s original proposals for the session.

On Thursday afternoon, the committee heard a bill to establish the Adult Degree Completion Scholarship, a scholarship aimed toward adults with some college credits who have not yet completed their education.

The bill asks for $5 million in ongoing General Fund appropriations.

Applicants must be a resident of Idaho, enroll as an undergraduate student at an Idaho school, have experienced a gap of three or more years in the pursuit of their degree, have at least 30 credits, demonstrate financial need through their FAFSA, and be registered as at least a part-time student.

Many testified in support of the bill, including representatives from Idaho colleges and a single mother who testified the scholarship would have helped her have a better life for her and her children.

Only one person, Wayne Hoffman, President of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, testified against the bill, saying he supported the intentions of the bill but it was not the right solution, and that future recipients might be motivated to take a three year break from school in order to receive the scholarship.

Testimony took up a majority of the meeting, and two bills – including one that would move school district trustees elections from May in odd years to the November general election in even years – were held by the committee to be presented at a later date, despite a number of people signed up and waiting to testify.

Sen. Mortimer said the bills would be revisited at a later date, to be determined.

Senator Steven P. Thayn (R), District 8, said he could support the Adult Completion Scholarship bill if it included an additional requirement stating the recipient had a clear career path.

The committee voted to send the bill to the amending order to be revised.

Posted February 21, 2016


Religious Freedom and Medical Care

by Nishant Mohan

Idaho Public Radio

State Capitol Bureau

Governor C. l. “Butch” Otter has asked Idaho legislative leadership to consider creating a working group to assess the state’s religious exemption relative to medical care for children.

The exemption still exists because many lawmakers are cautious to remove what they see as a parental right or religious freedom to give their children the medical care they deem appropriate.

The pertinent Idaho Statute is 18-1501, link below.

A letter sent by Governor Otter to leadership was released Thursday, February 11th. That evening, child advocate organizations held a public panel discussion at the Lincoln Auditorium at the State Capitol to call for legislation eliminating the exemption.

“If you’re dead you can’t enjoy your constitutional freedoms,” Emily Walton said Thursday evening. “Above every amendment is the freedom to stay alive.”

Walton’s sister, Mariah, whose testimony dominated the discussion, was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension when she saw a doctor without her parents’ permission.

“They were legally allowed to get me to this point,” she said of her fundamentalist Mormon parents. “When I mentioned blue fingers, [the doctor] freaked out and she told me I had this disease and I didn’t know what it was.”

She said the doctor told her the disease was at a stage where she would have only five years to live if she did not get help.

“I was so scared about what my parents were going to do,” Walton said. “My parents said if I were to go [to the doctor] something terrible would happen to me.”

“My mom didn’t even want to look at me,” Walton said. “She said to not talk about it.”

Walton said she now lives with her sister, Eliza, who is her full-time caregiver and that she sees her parents minimally.

She and her sister, Emily, were both emotional at the panel, but her sister said she thinks the subject needs more input to make sure the law does not infringe on people’s rights.

Panelist Erwin Sonnenberg was the Ada County Coroner for 36 years and had many stories of deaths he said the law restricted prosecutors from looking into.

Panelist Janet Heimlich said deaths are not the only negative result of the exemption in the law.

“The deaths are really high profile but we don’t hear about things like an infection that kept a kid out of school for a year,” Heimlich said. “I know a woman who lost a leg because of an infection she didn’t treat because of christian science.”

Heimlich, also the executive director of the Child-Friendly Faith Project, said there is no other form of maltreatment that is protected in this way.

“We’re not trying to get in the way of god healing the child,” Sonnenberg said. “Giving appropriate medical care has nothing to do with God’s choice in healing the child.”


Idaho Statute 18-1501


Posted February 15, 2016