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Bedke: Education is top priority

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Hagadone News Network | February 9, 2024 1:00 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — As Idaho continues to grow, it’s incumbent on state and local leaders to “keep the wheels on the wagon.”

That’s what Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke said Wednesday, when he sat down with The Press while visiting North Idaho for the 22nd Foresters Forum at The Coeur d’Alene Resort. He emphasized the economic importance of the timber industry in Idaho, noting that many thousands of Idahoans are directly employed in the industry and thousands more work in related fields.

“It’s absolutely critical that we communicate with the industry,” he said. “It has to happen here. You can’t do it from Boise.”

Bedke said supporting Idaho’s vital industries, including timber, begins with education policy. Investing in education, including workforce training, and fostering a varied job market is necessary to help Idaho retain its identity.

“Idaho stays Idaho when an Idaho kid can always get an Idaho job,” he said.

Bedke said he sees the Idaho Launch program, championed by Gov. Brad Little, as a means to make that happen. Idaho Launch will allow high school graduates to receive up to $8,000 to attend community college, complete workforce training or pursue a career-technical education certificate.

Bedke said state leaders expected up to 6,000 Idaho students would apply for the program in its first year. But more than 12,500 applications have poured in so far.

“I think we underestimated the demand or desire from kids who are interested in going into the trades,” he said.

When visiting high schools throughout Idaho last year to speak about Idaho Launch, Bedke said he saw students light up when they realized they could receive financial support to pursue in-demand careers.

“This opens the possibility for these kids in a way that we’ve never done in Idaho,” he said.

The initiative narrowly passed during last year’s legislative session. Now state lawmakers must decide how, or if, to fund Idaho Launch.

“I’m optimistic they’ll do that, or they’ve got to tell these kids no,” Bedke said.

While education is a priority for Bedke, he said he’s not quite sold on a proposed $5,000 tax credit designed to help Idaho parents fund private school for their children.

The $50 million proposal — unveiled in January by Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls — would allow families of any income to claim $5,000 tax credit for expenses related to “nonpublic academic instruction,” including tuition, fees, transportation, tutoring and more. Qualifying students would be enrolled in a nonpublic school, including home schools and religious schools.

If tax dollars are to be spent on private educational institutions, those institutions should face the same level of scrutiny as public schools, Bedke said, and be held to the same standards.

“I don’t think those standards exist in many nontraditional schools and they don’t exist in a homeschool situation,” he said.

Accountability to the taxpayer is critical, Bedke said.

“We have finite resources and we have to make them go as far as we can,” he said.

Bedke spoke favorably of proposed legislation that would impose mandatory prison sentences for people who “manufacture, deliver or bring” fentanyl into Idaho.

“The scourge of fentanyl is here and it’s real,” Bedke said.

Under House Bill 406, trafficking fentanyl would carry a minimum sentence of three, five or 10 years in prison, depending on the amount seized.

Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris and county prosecuting attorney Stan Mortensen have both called for mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl trafficking, in line with Idaho’s existing mandatory minimums for trafficking cocaine and methamphetamine.

Bedke said he tends to defer to the expertise of police and prosecutors who see the impact of fentanyl on their communities. He sees the proposed legislation as catching Idaho law up to what police are seeing on the street.

“It’s a deterrent,” he said.

Opponents of the bill have said the legislation would take away discretion from judges and lacks clear distinctions between fentanyl manufacturers, dealers, traffickers and users.

Bedke said he hopes North Idahoans feel comfortable reaching out to his office to share what matters to them.

“I understand the divide between here and Boise, but we bridge that gap through communication and interaction,” he said.

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