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Inside the orchestrated efforts to support — or oppose — a $410 million education bill in Idaho

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Idaho Gov. Brad Little unveiled his bill to cut taxes and boost education spending on Aug. 23. Nine days later, it was law. (Courtesy of Sadie Dittenber/Idaho EdNews)

Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on October 19, 2022

The Legislature’s Sept. 1 special session was a done deal.

But that didn’t stop about 650 Idahoans from calling or emailing Gov. Brad Little’s office about his plan to pour state surplus dollars into tax cuts and education spending.

A majority of the calls and emails ran against Little’s proposal — which became House Bill 1, the lone bill considered and passed during the one-day session.

HB 1 will provide $500 million in one-time tax rebates and $150 million in permanent income tax cuts. It also earmarks $330 million a year of sales tax revenue for K-12, and creates a new $80 million education fund to prepare Idahoans for in-demand jobs.

Little signed HB 1 into law on the evening of Sept. 1 — hours after the Legislature held its one and only public hearing on the bill. The House and Senate passed the bill on the afternoon of Sept. 1.

To get a better handle on the public reaction to HB 1, Idaho Education News filed a public records request for emails to Little’s office. The request covered the nine days from Aug. 23 — the day Little announced the special session, unveiling a proposal with majority support in both houses — and the date of the session.

Idaho EdNews also requested a tally of phone calls to Little’s office on the special session, for the same timeframe.

The emails offer a window into the behind-the-scenes politicking heading into the special session. Even though Little’s HB 1 was destined to pass, one education group rallied support from its membership, while a prominent conservative group appeared to mobilize its base in a longshot attempt to derail the bill.

The head of the state’s teachers’ union thanked Little for seeking new money for schools. A Nampa School District trustee castigated Little’s plan to put more money into “a broken system.”

By the numbers

The numbers are anecdotal and unscientific, but here’s how they break down.

Emails. Idaho EdNews received 489 emails, a majority in opposition to Little’s bill.

More than 300 of these were form letters. Many referred to the special session as a “full and complete surrender to the Reclaim Idaho socialists” — a reference to the group which had been pushing a ballot initiative to boost K-12 funding by increasing income taxes by about $330 million a year. The “surrender” comment mirrored pre-session rhetoric from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hardline conservative group that publicly and vehemently opposed HB 1.

Meanwhile, Little also received more than 150 emails thanking him for calling the session, sent at the urging of the Idaho Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, which supported HB 1. Many of the teachers’ emails also contained identical wording — saying the proposed funding boost “will have a huge impact on Idaho public schools.”

Phone messages. Call volume was relatively light, compared to the orchestrated email campaigns, but largely supportive. Little’s office received 146 phone calls before the session, spokeswoman Madison Hardy said, and about three-fourths of the callers supported HB 1.

‘Strip the education money dump’

The anti-HB 1 email blitz criticized each component of the bill.

The bill failed to provide aggressive income tax or property tax relief, opponents said. And they said the bill appeased the left by pumping more money into public schools, while failing to advance school choice.

“The action ahead is simple but daunting for some: Strip the education money dump, increase the tax cut to a historic level, and go home,” many of the emails said.

“The Idaho public school system is pathetic and I don’t want any of my tax dollars supporting their leftist woke agendas.”

Some opponents went off script, describing public schools as havens of indoctrination.

“The Idaho public school system is pathetic and I don’t want any of my tax dollars supporting their leftist woke agendas,” said Joy Cameron of Eagle, who identified herself as a retired special education teacher.

“Stop lining the pockets and feeding the sick beasts of the special interest groups that are ‘grooming’ students and not teaching the basics, reading writing and math!!” said Amy Bower of Caldwell.

The exact origin of the email campaign isn’t clear. But many of the prepared talking points — and the off-script criticisms — are consistent with the positions of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. The mass emails were sent through oneclickpolitics.com, a Washington, D.C., vendor that provides “advocacy software” to nonprofits. The website for Idaho Freedom Action — the Freedom Foundation’s advocacy arm — contains several online petitions powered by oneclickpolitics.

The Freedom Foundation does not respond to media inquiries.

At least two elected officials sent an anti-HB 1 form email to Little: state Rep. Tammy Nichols, a Middleton Republican who voted against the bill on Sept. 1; and Nampa school trustee Tracey Pearson.

Like many similar emails, Pearson’s email labeled public schools as “government schools,” and said Little’s bill “simply throws more money at a broken system.”

Pearson was elected in November 2021 to serve as a trustee in the state’s third largest school district. She did not respond to a request for comment on her email.

‘Your proposed educational investments may change my mind about leaving’

Many teachers expanded on the IEA’s thank-you script with their own stories.

“Each day my students and I are trying to learn and focus while being miserably hot (and soon it will be very cold in my room).”

Shaunna Giltz, a special education math teacher in Pocatello, said she has struggled to provide small group instruction without the help of aide — a position that has gone unfilled for six months.

Kali Connell, an eighth-grade math teacher at Wendell Middle School, said she hoped the money from HB 1 would alleviate building issues. For now, she said, she keeps a personal air conditioner and personal heater in her classroom. “Each day my students and I are trying to learn and focus while being miserably hot (and soon it will be very cold in my room).”

Post Falls High School teacher Matt Gunderson said his school continues to struggle to keep educators from taking jobs across the state line in Washington. “It has been hard for our students each and every time a highly effective and qualified teacher leaves for a higher-paying job.”

McKenzie Jones of Pocatello said her seventh year of teaching will likely be her last. Or maybe not. “Your proposed educational investments may change my mind about leaving,” she told Little.

IEA staff supplemented their members’ email blitz with pitches of their own; union president Layne McInelly and spokesman Mike Journee sent their own form emails to Little.

Heading into the special session, the IEA asked members to reach out to their local legislators in support of HB 1, Journee said Tuesday. That effort grew into a decision to email thank-you notes to Little.

“It’s fairly common to ask members to engage with lawmakers, or local school boards, when an issue important to them is being deliberated,” Journee said. “Asking them to engage with the governor is less common or even rare.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.