By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports
After more than two hours of debate, the House narrowly approved the Idaho Launch grant program on a 36-34 vote. The bill now heads to the Senate.
The bill would provide $8,500 for graduating Idaho seniors to pursue training or higher education for in-demand careers. Students could use the grant at Idaho higher education institutions or for training programs through approved private businesses.
The proposal is an expansion of the existing Idaho Launch program, created in 2020 to provide funding to help Idahoans gain skills and training to enter the workforce.
The Idaho Launch expansion was part of Gov. Brad Little’s education initiative this year. It uses $80 million set aside in the special session last year for the In-Demand Careers Fund, as well as $22 million from the existing Postsecondary Credit Scholarship and Opportunity Scholarship programs.
Opponents were worried that the bill would manipulate the free market and box students into career paths that might not suit them. Others wanted to see more resources put into high school career technical education programs.
Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, said the proposal restricts the types of careers students are incentivized to pursue. She also raised concerns about timelines for students who may need to take time off from training for work, illness, or missions.
“I look at this program and I think, ‘Is this a program I would want my student to participate in?’” Young said.
Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, also pointed to Idaho’s low 3% unemployment rate, saying there aren’t many more workers to put into those open jobs. “If we think we’re going to solve the unemployment or employment problem, we’re not,” he said.
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said the state has money for the program now, but recalled painful cuts the legislature had to make during the last recession. Vander Woude agreed, pointing to the expanding costs for Medicaid expansion and warning lawmakers what they agree to pay now may increase in future years.
Supporters pointed to annual checks with the Workforce Development Council on which careers count as “in-demand,” as well as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which would appropriate the needed money for the grants.
“We get the chance every single year to assess the quality of this program and make adjustments,” said Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg.
Former high school principal Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, recalled the number of students she talked to over the years about their behavior or academic problems. “As you would delve into why they were having those issues, very often it was because they were having financial troubles at home as well,” said Yamamoto, chair of the House Education Committee.
Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston, pointed out that the Idaho Legislature had already agreed to set aside $80 million for in-demand careers during the 2022 special session. This bill takes care of that, she said.
Bill sponsor Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, acknowledged that the legislature is in an odd spot with the proposal, as it had already agreed to appropriate $80 million for the In-Demand Careers Fund without any policy attached to it.
“I understand that people are concerned with this being over-appropriated. I absolutely do,” Blanksma said. She encouraged support of the bill, as it helps both businesses and students with their needs.
Ultimately, the majority of the House GOP caucus voted against the bill, while the 11 House Democrats joined 25 Republicans to vote yes. House Speaker Mike Moyle, Assistant Majority Leader Sage Dixon, and House Appropriations Committee chair Wendy Horman voted nay, while Majority Leader Blanksma, Majority Caucus Chair Dustin Manwaring, and House Education Committee Chair Yamamoto voted aye.