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Rep. Wendy Horman embraces new role as co-chair of the Idaho Legislature’s budget committee

Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee co-chair Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, directs committee business at the Idaho State Capitol building on Jan. 11, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee co-chair Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, directs committee business at the Idaho State Capitol building on Jan. 11, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Horman supports changing public school funding formula, an issue that is expected to dominate the 2023 session

About the time the Idaho Legislature’s 2022 regular session adjourned last March, Rep. Wendy Horman was weighing whether to run again for speaker of the Idaho House or strive to become the next co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

As many Idaho legislators and political observers braced for significant turnover in the Idaho Legislature heading into the 2023 session, Horman, R-Idaho Falls, had experience and options on her side.

With five legislative terms under her belt, Horman was the most experienced member of the Republican majority on JFAC who was running for re-election. JFAC’s top two House Republicans, former co-chair Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, and Vice Chair Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, had already announced their intentions to not seek another term. Additionally, former Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, was vacating his leadership spot to run for lieutenant governor, a position he won. Horman had previously run against Bedke for speaker of the House in 2020 and lost.

On top of that, Horman ran uncontested for re-election to the Idaho Legislature without a primary or general election opponent in 2022, giving her a clear path forward to returning to the Idaho State Capitol in 2023.

Based on her previous run for speaker, Horman knew she would have to spend the summer and fall networking and building alliances with legislators to have a shot at being elected speaker. Partially because of the time involved and partially because of the number of new legislators, Horman decided not to run for speaker. Eventually, new Speaker of the House Mike Moyle, R-Star, was elected to the top leadership spot in the House after defeating Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian.

“In terms of seniority (on JFAC) the next closest person of the currently serving members on the majority side had two years of experience, I think,” said Horman, who has served on JFAC for eight years. “So I think I was a natural choice, and I had a lot of support from members for me to move into this role. I have tried to be very transparent in the work I have done on the budget committee.”

Rep. Wendy Horman helped incoming Idaho legislators gear up for the budget setting process

Instead of running for speaker, Horman dedicated her time and energy to preparing herself and new legislators for the daunting task of writing and passing the 2024 fiscal year budget, which could include as many as 108 different budgets and nearly $5 billion in general fund spending.

Acting on a suggestion by Reps. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, and Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, Horman organized an informal JFAC 101 Zoom training program in the fall for any interested legislative colleagues. To Horman’s surprise, 17 or 18 legislators participated in her JFAC 101 program and then showed an interest in serving on the committee.

“Due to some of the recent challenges we had faced in getting support for some budgets (on the House floor), I gave a lot of thought to how we could help our new freshman class on the House side get to know the budget process,” Horman told the Idaho Capital Sun during a lengthy interview this week.

In the past two years, budgets for theIdaho Commission for Libraries, the public school budget for teacher salaries and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Welfare budget have all been killed on the House floor and later rewritten.

“I really spent a lot of time thinking about why that was and what could I do if I was named to the position (as JFAC co-chair) to help them feel more comfortable with the process in JFAC,” Horman said.

After he was elected speaker in December’s organizational session, Moyle named Horman as the co-chair of JFAC. Horman had served on JFAC for the previous eight years. During one session, Horman said she carried 47 different budgets on the House floor.

“Her experience was a big factor,” Moyle told the Sun. “But the fact (is) that she’s always been good at those issues. The floor respects her, the caucus does. She can carry bills that nobody else can get through.”

Moyle believes Horman will be effective at getting things done in a new-look Idaho House where Republicans increased their supermajority by one seat this year. Republicans now control 59 of the 70 seats in the Idaho House.

“If you’ve watched the House the last few years, we’re getting a little more — a lot more — conservative, and we’re making sure that the budgets are what they should be,” Moyle said. “(There is) a lot of pushback. You saw a lot of budgets last year that barely passed or we killed. We killed several. I wanted a chairman that could make sure the budgets came out on the low end of things and to where they were going to slide through a lot easier so we don’t have the fight on the floor, and I think she can accomplish that. She knows the politics of the floor. She knows the politics of the committee, and she’ll be able to maneuver and do a good job there.”

Idaho’s new budget co-chair is a former school board member from Idaho Falls

Before she was elected to the Idaho Legislature, Horman served for about 11 years as a school board member for the Bonneville Joint School District 93, which serves students in the Idaho Falls area. While she was on her local school board, Horman also served as president of the Idaho School Boards Association for a stint. Horman previouslytold Idaho Education Newsthe two experiences helped prepare her to serve in the Idaho Legislature.

During her first legislative session in 2013, Horman served on the House Education Committee. Two years later, she joined the Joint Finance-Appropriations committee.

Horman worked her way up the ranks to serve as JFAC vice chair in 2019, but the vice chair’s position was taken away from her after she challenged Bedke for the speaker’s position in late 2020 and lost, although Horman remained on JFAC.

“In my eight years of service on JFAC, I think I’ve become more well known for working the education budgets, but one year I carried 47 budgets when I was serving as vice chair and picking up supplementals,” Horman said. “I do have a broad base of experience. I do understand education deeply, but I have had a good base to work with from a lot of other budgets as well.”

Horman said her approach to passing budgets and helping lead JFAC includes putting in work with legislators before the budgets ever go for a vote and respecting the differences between policy committees such as the House Education Committee and JFAC, which is responsible for budgeting.

“I never ask a legislator to vote ‘yes’ if I can’t justify it,” Horman said. “I think that’s led to a situation where I have a high degree of trust with current members, who know I’m not offended by being questioned and know I want to be transparent.”

JFAC is among the most powerful and hard working committees in the Idaho Legislature, meeting daily at 8 a.m. for three-hour budget hearings, whereas many committees meet every other day or twice a week. JFAC controls the pursestrings for the Idaho Legislature, and there is a lot of influence and scrutiny that come along with the work.

The new assignment comes with an increased workload and responsibilities for Horman.

On a typical day, she arrives at the Idaho State Capitol between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. On Monday, she said she arrived before the doors were unlocked. Each morning Horman gears up for JFAC, helps lead the morning budget hearing and participates in a whatever morning floor session the House has. In the afternoons, she conducts meetings with state officials, legislators, lobbyists and other groups and juggles her work with two afternoon committees, the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee and the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee.

She often doesn’t leave the Statehouse until after 5 p.m., and if there is a reception or dinner with a professional organization or business group who works on legislative issues Horman is engaged in, she may not be back to her room until after 8 p.m.

“The meeting load is very heavy so last week, my first week here, I really prioritized my schedule around time with committee members,” Horman said. “We have a lot of new members, and I want them to feel first and foremost that they have access to me as chairman, to get their questions answered, for them to feel comfortable to come in and ask questions.”

Once JFAC transitions from budget hearings to budget setting in late February, Horman expects to start carrying budgets on the House floor when they are up for votes.

Horman supports changes to Idaho’s public school funding formula

Horman said she is working on and nearly finished with a draft of a bill to revamp Idaho’s public school funding formula. She didn’t give exact details and stressed the legislation isn’t finished yet, but she said she wants to push more control to local school districts and charter schools. One example of this, she said, could be treating a much larger portion of a school district or charter school’s share of funding as discretionary money for school districts and charters.

“We want to push decision making down to the local level,” Horman said. “Let them put those funds where they need to be. If there is a problem in math scores, shift the funds in that direction. If there is a border town that has to compete with higher wages, pay whatever you need to to have the workforce you need. I’ve never believed the state should be the one to make decisions.”

This isn’t a new issue for Horman. In 2016 she was named co-chair of a committeethat reviewed Idaho’s public school funding formula. In 2018, that committee recommended overhauling the state’s public school funding formula.

The existing funding formula dates to 1994, before the adoption of online and hybrid courses and the expansion of charter schools in Idaho.

“That’s something that has been a concern of mine from the time I was a school board member, to the time I first came in the Legislature to now,” Horman said. “That funding formula is celebrating its 29th birthday this year. It was great for the ‘90s, but not so great for 2023.”

Horman said she supports making a change so that funding could follow the student to their school of choice and parents could decide where to spend their share of school funding, including putting that money toward tuition at private schools or religious schools through education savings accounts or a similar program.

“I have voted to support those types of programs since I came here,” Horman said. “That is in part because of my personal experience of having a child in a school setting that just was not working for that child. This was before charter schools. This was when I was not working at the time and not in a position to pay private school tuition, and a public school setting just did not work for my child.”

A school funding formula rewrite or education savings account bill could lead to one of the biggest debates of the 2023 session. House Minority Leader Illana Rubel, D-Boise, said she fundamentally opposes any program that would allow state tax dollars to be put toward a private or religious school.

“We have spent decades erecting a system of accountability for public schools in exchange for receiving taxpayer dollars,” Rubel said in a telephone interview. “We demand accountability for our tax dollars, and I am not at all comfortable handing over a pile of the taxpayers’ money to private organizations that have not one metric by which we can measure or hold them accountable in any way.”

“We have a constitutional obligation to fund public schools,” Rubel added. “Until we’ve done that properly, we should not be taking on new obligations we have no constitutional obligation to undertake.”

Idaho has not allowed public school funding to be used at private religious schools because of a clause inthe Idaho Constitution prohibiting it.

Horman points to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in the case of Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue as opening the door to using scholarships or public school funding sources at private and religious schools. Horman also said the practice already happens, whether it is food stamps or opportunity scholarships going to students who attend private schools.

“I will always go to bat for students who need a different setting in which to learn and their parents can’t afford to obtain that for them,” Horman said.

Horman said she can support parents choosing where to spend school funding at the same time as supporting public schools, saying she has a track record of thousands of hours of time spent volunteering for a public school board and fighting for public school funding as a legislator.

“I want to support parents in helping their kids get in the best setting for their individual child,” Horman said. “For me, it’s about the students’ needs, and I don’t care what setting they learn in.”

The Idaho Legislature’s budget committee is in for changes in 2023

In addition to new leadership, there are other changes taking place in JFAC this year. During December’s organizational session of the Idaho Legislature, Moyle reduced the number of Democratic seats on JFAC from two to one after Republicans increased their supermajority by one seat in November’s general election. Moyle said he did so because he thought Democrats would have been overrepresented on the committee. Rubel and Idaho Democrats said the change makes it so representation is not proportional.

Additionally, Moyle told the Sun last week he supportschanging how JFAC votes on budget bills. Moyle supports splitting the committee in two, so JFAC’s 10 House members and 10 Senate members vote separately. If that change moves forward, a budget would need to clear two separate votes with a simple majority to advance out of JFAC to the floor for a vote.

Moyle said making the change would help avoid big floor fights and reduce the chances of budgets being killed on the House floor. Rubel opposes the idea, saying it would fundamentally change how JFAC operates and make it much easier to block or kill budgets for things like public schools, libraries or Idaho Department of Health and Welfare programs.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.