IDAHO — Lawmakers have called legislation in the Idaho senate a "game-changer," but regional education associations have mixed reviews.
If signed into law, House Bill 443 would create a dedicated fund to finance the one-time amount public schools need to buy into the state's medical and dental group insurance plans. The bill is waiting for a senate hearing after passing the Idaho House on Monday in a 55-14 vote.
Gov. Brad Little deemed the legislation a "game-changer" in a tweet Monday afternoon, and many bill backers believe it could help attract and retain teaching staff across the state.
"As an educator of 32 years, I'll tell you there has never been a harder time to be in education than there is right now," Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, said during the hearing on Monday. "It's not just teachers, it's also every other staff member that is working there."
Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly also said the legislation, if enacted, would greatly benefit school districts. Specifically, he believes the dedicated fund would be a boon to schools in rural areas that often struggle to find competitive health insurance plans.
"We've heard stories from educators across the state that...paraprofessionals who work specifically for insurance have to write a check back to the school district for their health insurance," McInelly said. "It's going to impact our rural districts (ability) to get a larger pool of people together so that it does lower their deductible, which then ultimately ends up with more money in their pocket."
While the legislative provisions are favorable, Nampa Education Association President Brian Coffey said the bill also sends an important message from the state to teaching staff.
"To me, it's a message that public educators are valuable public servants and should be receiving the same high-quality insurance benefits as other state employees," he said.
Still, Coffey feels much more work needs to be done by the legislature and that lawmakers should put more money into supporting education. Nodding to the state's record budget surplus, Coffey said that "the real legislative priority" is not education but providing tax cuts.
"I read a newspaper article about a state legislator that said that the state just hasn't had the funds to do this in the past. But last year, House Bill 380 produced over $435 million in tax cuts. They couldn't have paid for it last year?" he said. "Just a few years ago, Gov. Otter got an over $200 million tax cut bill passed on his way out the door. The state couldn't have spared $75 million to make this switch back then?"
Boise Education Association President Stephanie Myers said BEA and the Boise School District Joint Insurance Committee are comparing the state plan with current insurers. Myers added that they are analyzing the bill and will continue to do so as the legislation progresses.
"While there are pros and cons to both our plan and the state plan, we want to be diligent in making the best decision for our staff and their families," she said.
School districts don't have to buy into the state plan and can continue working with their private insurers. However, McInelly said educators are "incredibly excited" to receive "quality health care insurance provided at a reasonable cost."
"It's going to be incredibly significant for educators because a lot of them live paycheck to paycheck," he said.
As a former sixth-grade teacher, McInelly said this bill would have benefited him and his family.
"We're hearing right now that about 50, just over 50% of our educators are looking at leaving the profession," he said. "So helping the educators with better benefits, better pay, and more respect is what's going to keep educators in the classroom and working with our students."
If passed into law, districts would have until June 2024 to use funds. According to the bill text, the dedicated fund could hold an estimated $75.5 million if all schools join the plan.