Gov. Brad Little’s workforce grant bill squeaks through House. Most Republicans opposed it

The Idaho House on Monday narrowly approved a proposal from Gov. Brad Little to create workforce grants targeting in-demand careers, part of the $410 million lawmakers set aside for education during last year’s special legislative session.

The bill would create a fund, administered by the Idaho Workforce Development Council, that provides up to $8,500 in grants to Idaho high school graduates enrolling in state and community colleges as well as workforce training programs. It would expand an existing program, Idaho Launch, which is currently designed for mid-career training and job seeking.

Little, a Republican, made the grants a priority in his budget proposal before the legislative session. The majority of House Republicans opposed the bill, which passed by just one vote.

The $102 million fund would prioritize in-demand careers, as employers say they’re struggling to find qualified workers.

“This is about jobs, not diplomas,” said House Majority Leader Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, who’s sponsoring the bill. “What we’re doing is trying to fulfill our workforce needs and get kids into jobs that they love.”

But many House Republicans argued it’s not taxpayers’ responsibility to subsidize higher education and workforce training. Others expressed concern that the bill wouldn’t guarantee that recipients stay in Idaho after using the grant. The bill would require recipients to pay back the funds if they drop out of a program before completing it.

“Our businesses will pay for this if they have the need,” said Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian. “This benefit is not necessarily for the students, this is for businesses to be able to cover costs that they’re already paying.”

Rep. David Cannon, R-Blackfoot, objected to the legislation, which directs the Workforce Development Council to identify in-demand careers that would be prioritized for grants. Dozens of industry leaders and public officials sit on the council.

“The economist in me cringes at the idea of saying, ‘We no longer trust the supply and demand in the free market to determine equilibrium, and we’re going to create a council in government … to sit around a table and decide what that equilibrium should be,’” Cannon said.

Business, education leaders back bill

The legislation would leverage $80 million in state funds set aside for workforce development during last year’s special session along with another $22 million drawing from existing scholarship funds.

Industry and education leaders backed the proposal during a committee meeting last week. A recruiting executive at WinCo Foods and representatives from the Idaho State Dental Association and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry testified in favor of it.

Two educators turned lawmakers, Reps. Matthew Bundy, R-Mountain Home, and Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, also supported the bill. Yamamoto said as a school principal she spoke to thousands of students whose problems in school were often related to financial instability.

“I don’t want to just appeal to you on some kind of a heart-wrenching appeal, but I am going to tell you that there are a lot of kids that are in that spot,” Yamamoto said. “We would do well to not ignore that.”

Following Monday’s hourslong debate, House Democrats took credit for “saving” the bill, after most Republicans, including House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, voted against it.

“The Idaho House Democratic Caucus is proud to have played the pivotal role in advancing Idaho Launch today,” House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said in a news release. “Every industry presentation we attend underscores our need for more skilled workers. We also know that preparing Idahoans for in-demand careers can help them secure good jobs with good wages.”

The bill now heads to the Senate.