BOISE, Idaho — In January, Idaho Gov. Brad Little set the tone for the year in the Gem State during his State of the State address when he touched on areas of improvement for Idaho. Two areas included workforce development and education.
In his big address, Gov. Little pitched the idea to send graduating high schoolers grant money to help get them get into fields Idaho needs help in, like nursing, welding, technology experts and truck operators, just to name a few. The idea is called 'Idaho Launch,' and it is a shot at a signature piece of legislation for Little and the lawmakers that are working through the process to pass it.
However, in recent weeks, Idaho Launch has seen bumps in the road, with skeptics unsure if its a homerun idea. On Tuesday, a bill was pitched to address concerns, and to fix Idaho Launch in a way where it can pass legislative approval.
Some Republican lawmakers say they appreciate what the idea is trying to do, but don't think the government is serving its roll correctly by running with the program.
The original plan for Idaho Launch involved sending $8,500 to eligible students to help them pay for education or workforce training to get them into a career field Idaho badly needs. Pretty quickly after the idea was pitched, critics spoke out arguing there wasn't enough parameters on the program, it was a handout to send kids to a broad range of programs, and it needed to show that the money invested would actually end up helping Idaho.
The trailer bill debated in committee on Tuesday would add more restrictions and sideboards to the idea of Idaho Launch. Those sideboards go as follow:
1) It enhances legislative oversight of the Idaho Launch program to heighten program accountability. It makes sure lawmakers are getting annual reports on the program to ensure funding is correct and the workforce development council is operating well. The workforce development council will be the main group watching this idea.
2) It ensures greater "skin in the game" from Idaho Launch participants by capping the maximum state match at 80% and the maximum grant at $8,000. That is down from $8,500. So, a cheaper program now.
3) It further limits the use of Idaho Launch funds to just tuition and fees. No room and board or other spending options.
4) It limits the Idaho Launch program to just community colleges and workforce training providers.
There are critics who say universities shouldn't get a handout from the idea, and focus needed to be on workforce training, not just general education.
Of note, in committee it was clarified there is a carveout in the trailer bill to include the nursing program at Lewis-Clark State College.
Community colleges across Idaho are a major player in this idea, so how do they feel about the edits to Idaho Launch?
Gordon Jones is the President of the College of Western Idaho (CWI), and he told the committee this is a great idea. Jones said it addresses a major factor preventing workforce development in Idaho; the affordability of training for those in-demand careers.
“The concern is about this really, where I can step forward and see that result? We believe at the community-college level, that is, this bill lowers that barrier and incentivizes individuals to step into careers, most notably police, fire, HVAC, plumbing, electrical nurses, mechatronics, lights, robotics, horticulture. You go on and on, and those are just a few of the over 100 programs," Jones said.
Some critics of the concept and trailer bill do agree, yes, sending money to young adults to help the Gem State's workforce is an idea that would be beneficial for Idahoans.
However, they question if a program like Idaho Launch is within the role of government. Republican Sen. Dan Foreman said he saw the good in the concept, but isn’t sure about how the legislature comes on the idea.
"Going to tech school or some sort of post-secondary education institution is a consumer decision. They have products for sale. Product is called an education. If you wish to obtain that education, you have to pay for it," Foreman said. "I don't see it as being within government's charter to fund that type of consumer decision with the dollars do good. No argument here. They would, well, a lot of things would do good, but they fall outside the charter of government."
Republican Sen. Jim Guthrie pushed back on that idea, pointing out that Idaho's beautiful college campuses and buildings are paid for by taxpayers. High schools too, he said.
Guthrie asked, 'why would Idaho stop at just supporting education through building infrastructure?'
"Why do we do that? Because we want our next generations to be educated and be prepared to meet the needs of a workforce," Guthrie said. "So, why would we invest those billions of dollars in infrastructure and buildings and facilities and staff and professors and teachers, and then all of a sudden the product that where it matters the most, which is turning out that student that has the skills and the aptitude and the ability to contribute to the workforce and drive Idaho's economy forward, why would we quit there? We've already committed so much, rightfully so."
So, after two votes, the committee advanced the bill to the full Senate for consideration. The bill advanced by just one vote.
Tuesday was conversation on the trailer bill, but what about the main Idaho Launch bill?
That is currently sitting in the 14th order in the Idaho Senate, which means it could be waiting on amendments.
Does the trailer bill change that?
Hard to say for now, but the Idaho Senate now has both the trailer and the full bill to deal with. The trailer bill needs to clear the Idaho House as well. The goal at the statehouse is to be done 10 days from Tuesday, March 24.
Is there enough time to get this done, and what will the end result look like?
Time will tell.
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