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JFAC approves Idaho higher education budget

by KEVIN RICHERT /Idaho Education News
| March 13, 2023 1:05 AM

Legislative budget-writers approved a spending plan for higher education — and basically followed Gov. Brad Little’s playbook.

But that doesn’t mean the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee was of one mind Thursday morning — and JFAC’s debate illustrated some sharp differences on higher ed spending.

Several conservatives wanted to zero out state funding for social justice positions and public radio. Democrats made a failed push to add some money to help four-year schools settle into newly built facilities. One Democrat suggested a big-money push designed to curb tuition costs.

Thursday’s bottom line: JFAC approved providing $353.9 million of taxpayer money to the four-year schools: Boise State University, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College. That represents a 4.7% increase. (It also doesn’t include the $324.6 million the schools receive from other sources, particularly student tuition and fees.)

The budget bill, which now must pass the House and Senate, leaves a couple of major unanswered questions. The budget could still defund 56 diversity, equity and inclusion positions on the four-year campuses. And it might or might not be enough to head off a tuition increase, after three years of freezes.

What passed, and what didn’t

JFAC opened Thursday morning’s hearing with four different budget options on the table:

James Petzke, R-Meridian, led a group pushing the $353.9 million budget. The spending plan only deviates from Little’s plan in one area. It whittles Little’s budget request for employee pay raises — proposing a total of $14.7 million for raises, instead of the $17.4 million Little recommended.

Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, took the Petzke budget and made one addition. She wanted $706,000 for “occupancy costs:” the expense of staffing and opening new facilities. Ward-Engelking noted that the state used to provide occupancy costs, but stopped during the Recession. “That’s a deal we made with the universities,” she said.

Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, made a $350.1 million counteroffer. He proposed cutting $395,000 in taxpayer funding for Boise State Public Radio, and $4.8 million to cut 56 “social justice staff” jobs at the four-year schools. “That’s outside the core mission of what we need the universities to do,” Herndon said.

Colin Nash, D-Boise, took the Petzke budget, and made one big change. He proposed taking $85 million from the state’s new in-demand careers fund — the money Little has proposed using for his Idaho Launch postsecondary incentives program. Instead, Nash wanted to use the $85 million to cap tuition at $6,000 a year.

After discussion, JFAC started winnowing down the field.

Herndon’s budget failed first, on a 6-13 vote.

Ward-Engelking’s budget was next to fall, on a party-line, 3-16 vote.

Petzke’s budget ultimately passed on a 16-3 budget, with Herndon and Republican Reps. Josh Tanner of Eagle and Tina Lambert of Caldwell voting no.

When that proposal passed, Nash’s proposal never came up for a vote.

Social justice, public radio debate continues

While Herndon’s budget proposal failed, he did convince JFAC to draw a line against social justice spending.

The committee approved budget language forbidding the four-year schools to use any state money “to support diversity, equity, inclusion or social justice ideology as part of any student activities, clubs, events or organizations on campus.”

“(This is) pretty harsh language,” Ward-Engelking said, during brief debate on the proposal. “I think we’re stepping outside our realm here.”

The committee inserted the language into the budget bill, on a party-line 16-3 vote.

Herndon also pushed for language forbidding Boise State from funding Boise State Public Radio, arguing that public radio has a loyal and generous donor base that covers most of its costs.

The debate quickly turned to questions of editorial content.

“I think we should be willing to hear criticisms as well as praise,” said Rep. Matthew Bundy, R-Mountain Home.

“This appropriation has nothing to do with squelching the First Amendment,” said Herndon. But Herndon also took issue with some of public radio’s editorial content, on topics such as abortion, COVID-19 and global warming.

This motion failed on a 4-15 vote.

What’s next for Idaho’s higher education budget

The higher education budget is one big piece of unfinished business for the 2023 legislative session. But higher education budgets have run into resistance in past sessions — especially on the House floor.

And after the higher education budget passes the Legislature, the four-year schools and the State Board of Education will have to set student tuition and fees for the next school year. The State Board vote is expected in April.

Currently, in-state tuition and fees range from $8,396 at the U of I to $6,996 at Lewis-Clark. The schools have frozen in-state, undergraduate tuition for three years.

But State Board officials and higher education administrators have indicated that the schools might have to increase tuition next year. Inflation is one factor. So too, potentially, is employee pay. In past years, college and universities officials have complained that the state has not fully funded raises, forcing the schools to use tuition dollars to pick up the difference.

The higher education budget would fully fund campus pay raises, and JFAC’s proposal that translates to a $1.20-per-hour raise for most state employees, said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, JFAC’s House co-chair.

In statements Thursday, the U of I and Boise State didn’t respond to questions about the budget’s implications for tuition and fees — and social justice programs.

“Our focus is the success of our students and we will continue to focus on this as we work within the funding and laws established by our state legislature,” the U of I said in its statement.

In its statement, Boise State said it “appreciates” JFAC’s support. “We will continue to work with lawmakers and the State Board of Education on any next steps as well as intent language.”

Idaho State University did not immediately respond to requests for comment on JFAC’s vote; through a spokesman, Lewis-Clark declined comment.

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This story was originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on March 9, 2023.