Legislation allowing Idaho K-12 teachers to take home more of their paychecks by giving school districts an opportunity to leave private health care carriers and join the state’s self-funded health insurance plan cleared the House on Monday and headed to the Senate.
The House voted 55-14 to approve the legislation backers said is needed to help the state hire and retain teachers and other school workers by reducing premiums and lowering deductibles. Backers also said it could reduce reliance on school levies some school districts use that can raise property taxes.
“This is a chance for the state to stand up and put their money where their mouth is about really helping teachers,” said Republican Rep. Judy Boyle during debate on the House floor.
Lawmakers called the bill a “game-changer” for public education because health insurance costs are eating into Idaho teacher paychecks and causing many to consider leaving the profession.
The bill is not a budget bill, and it doesn’t allocate any money. Instead, it creates a dedicated fund, called the public school health insurance participation fund, that would hold the one-time amount needed for public schools to buy into the state’s medical and dental group insurance plan.
That one-time amount is estimated at about $75.5 million, if all the schools enter into the state employment plan, said Republican Rep. Rod
Furniss, an insurance agent involved in health, disability and corporate benefits for more than 30 years and one of the bill’s sponsors.
“It’s a first-come, first-served for that money to buy into that account,” he said.
Gov. Brad Little’s proposed budget includes $105 million in general fund money to school districts to help cover employee health insurance costs. That would increase the $8,400 schools get per employee to $12,500, the level the state pays for its employees for health insurance.
Money approved for the plan would have to first go through the Legislature’s budget-setting committee and then need to be approved by both the House and Senate before going into the dedicated fund for use by public schools.
It’s possible some school districts could stick with their insurers, if they’re competitive, or move to the state plan.
Any money put into the fund, according to the legislation, can’t be spent before July 1 or after June 30, 2024, giving school districts a two-year window to make a decision. Any money left in the dedicated fund by its expiration would go to the public education stabilization fund or, if that’s full, to the state’s general fund.
The National Education Association estimated that for the 2019-2020 school year, the average national classroom teacher salary was $65,000. Idaho ranked 39th with an average salary of just under $53,000 and 35th in average starting salary at $38,000.
A number of lawmakers who worked as teachers supported the bill, including Republican Rep. Gary Marshall, who said he felt fortunate to work as a public educator years ago but had to leave when he started a family.
“This bill will put more money in the take-home pay of hundreds, thousands of teachers across this state,” he said. “It is time for us to do this.
It is extremely important. I left public education because I couldn’t make it.”o