Advanced opportunities, emergency declarations and China sanctions punctuate quiet day in Boise

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William L. Spence, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
·5 min read
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Feb. 17—BOISE — Private school students and the Legislature itself came up winners on a relatively quiet day at the Statehouse Tuesday.

Details on some of the activity include:

CHINA SYNDROME II — The day began with Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, introducing an amended version of his joint memorial asking Congress to sanction China.

The legislation accuses the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party of "deceit, duplicity and crimes against humanity" for their handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan last year.

"COVID-19 has done irreparable damage to countries across the globe, causing sickness, death, economic disruption and human suffering," the memorial says. "The Chinese government lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19, silenced whistleblowers, denied human-to-human transmission ... and did little to stop the spread of the disease."

The House State Affairs Committee agreed to introduce the memorial. However, Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, asked von Ehlinger to provide some documentation supporting the accusations, should the measure come back for a public hearing.

EDUCATION CHOICES — Legislation giving private and home-school students access to state funding for dual-credit and Advanced Placement classes passed the Senate on a bipartisan 28-6 vote.

Senate Bill 1045 sidesteps constitutional prohibitions against state funding for private or religious schools by clarifying that the money would go directly to the post-secondary institutions that offer the classes.

Each student would be eligible for up to $750 per year to use on "advanced opportunity" classes, which includes college level dual-credit classes and career-technical certification. The overall cost of the legislation is estimated at $750,000 per year, subject to appropriations.

"I think it's time to provide some help to all high school students, regardless of what school they attend," said Senate Education Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, who sponsored the bill. "I think it's good policy to encourage all students to succeed."

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Cour d'Alene, noted that private school parents still pay taxes that support the public school system.

SB 1045 "offers a way for these kids to have access to a little bit of the resources that their parents have long been paying into," Souza said.

However, the legislation raised red flags for Sens. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, and David Nelson, D-Moscow, both of whom serve on the Senate Education Committee.

"This bill, while it's a great idea — we can't afford what we're already doing with advanced opportunities," said Crabtree, who also serves on the joint budget committee.

The Advanced Opportunities program "started out at $500,000, and now it's $30 million per year," he said. "And now we want to add more to it, add more people. We can't add to the problem that we already have."

Nelson said even though the fiscal note on the bill calls for a modest $750,000 investment, that's money that could otherwise go into improving Idaho's public education system.

"I want to support education every way I can, but everything is a choice," he said. "I'd prefer to do something to reduce the need for (supplemental) levies in our schools. We could pay more for all-day kindergarten, or discuss pre-K classes. There are many choices we could make. This (bill) isn't the highest priority I'd put on education."

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, also sits on the Education Committee. He voted in favor of the bill, while Crabtree and Nelson opposed it.

The measure now goes to the House for further action.

Reasoned and deliberate — After repeated tweaks and changes, a bill to limit and clarify the governor's emergency powers passed the House on a 49-20 vote.

The legislation caps the length of emergency declarations at a maximum of 60 days. The governor could extend the declaration beyond that time, but only for the purposes of maintaining federal funding. Any other provisions, including restrictions on individuals or businesses, would expire unless extended by the Legislature.

The bill comes in response to the public outcry over the governor's coronavirus emergency declaration and related state and local public health orders.

"This is a reaction to the citizens' outrage at having their rights limited — their right to congregate, their right to travel, to make a living," said Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. "This isn't putting limits on the governor's emergency powers. It simply assures that the Legislature and the people within the state have a say in how that emergency is managed. All we're asking is that the people have a place in the process."

The bill prohibits emergency declarations from being used to suspend laws or constitutional rights. It also says all Idaho workers are essential.

"If this bill is vetoed, it isn't because it limits executive power," Barbieri said. "It's because (the governor) doesn't want us in the mix, because we're too deliberative, we're too ponderous. It's because it takes time for us to make reasoned decisions."

Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and certified incident commander, said that's exactly the problem with the legislation.

"We've always addressed our emergencies first and then worried about statutory changes," Mathias said. "Today — rather than bringing a laser-like focus on getting (COVID-19) vaccines in arms, or helping our elderly neighbors get appointments, instead of stopping the spread and getting our schools open — we're talking about turning this Legislature into emergency managers. That's not something we're built to do."

All 12 House Democrats voted against the measure. They were joined by eight Republicans, including Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee. All other representatives from north central Idaho supported the bill, which now goes to the Senate for further action.

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208)-791-9168.