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Funding higher ed: Lawmakers weigh budgets for universities

Gov. Little is proposing a $22.3 million funding increase for higher education next year, “the largest budget increase for higher education since at least 1984."

BOISE, Idaho — Boise State University President Marlene Tromp fielded repeated questions about “social justice programming” as she pitched her university’s budget to state lawmakers on Tuesday and all of Idaho’s public college and university presidents pressed for improved funding.

Last year, the Idaho House killed a budget for higher education in the state that had coasted through the Senate, holding out for a new version that included slashing $2.5 million for what Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, on Tuesday called “wasteful spending on social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Nate on Tuesday repeatedly demanded that Tromp detail cuts made at Boise State. She responded that BSU has “evolved” its offerings. “It doesn’t mean that we simply hatcheted away programming,” the BSU president said. “We’ve evolved our programming. But that doesn’t mean we have reduced the kinds of offerings that are available to our students.” 

BSU has 100,000 living graduates, Tromp told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and provides education “with extraordinary efficiency, both for the institution and for our students.” She said, “We are serving tens of thousands of students on our campus, with thousands graduating every year. … We continue to develop new programs around the needs of our students.”

She highlighted the university’s rural initiatives, for which she’s seeking 10 new positions next year. “That’s going to make a real difference in those communities,” she said. And she noted successes ranging from rising research grants to business innovation programs.

“Our aim at Boise State is simple,” Tromp said, “to help our students develop their own minds, their own talents, to make their own choices and define their own best path. This is the reason I am in higher education, as are my many colleagues. I’m very proud to be here serving our students and serving our state.”

After her budget hearing, Tromp said she wasn’t surprised by the questioning. “I did feel like by talking about the evolution of our programming, that that was answering Rep. Nate’s questions,” she said. “But I also don’t think we should ever shut down the intellectual offerings that are available to our students. I feel like we really are being responsive to what our legislators asked us.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, who twice objected to Nate’s repeated questions, said, “Just because you don’t care for the answer doesn’t mean we can harass the presidents of our universities. I thought it was rude and inappropriate. She gave a very comprehensive answer.”

Gov. Brad Little is proposing a $22.3 million, 7.1% state funding increase for higher education next year to $335.5 million, which his budget director, Alex Adams, told lawmakers would be “the largest budget increase for higher education since at least 1984, most likely the largest in the state’s history.”

But the presidents of Idaho’s state colleges and universities said they were hard-hit by budget cuts after the great recession. “The portion of the state’s budget allocated to higher education has decreased by about half since 1990,” University of Idaho President C. Scott Green told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, from more than 15% of the state’s budget to just 7.4%.

Green heads the President’s Leadership Council, which consists of the presidents of all four of Idaho’s public four-year colleges and universities; he joined them all on Tuesday to tell lawmakers, “We have collaborated, and we are leading the state forward. ... We are beginning to see the impact of some of these combined efforts.”

Higher education in Idaho is providing huge returns to the state economy, Green said, boosting earnings, jobs and economic activity. Working together, he said, the council, which also includes the presidents of the four community colleges, the state career-technical education administrator, and the executive director of the state Board of Education, has implemented changes to Idaho’s higher education system. “We’ve cut overhead and focused resources on our core mission of educating Idaho’s students.”

The institutions have initiated $77 million in permanent budget reductions, Green said, and cut 493 full-time positions. All four are going live in October of 2022 with a centralized procurement system that’s expected to save 10-20% on purchases. They’ve been “eliminating system redundancy and sharing our workforce,” he said. They’re collaborating together on a campaign to improve Idaho’s go-on rate; joint cybersecurity degree programs; and the “Online Idaho” platform for course-sharing.

While strongly supporting the governor’s budget proposal, all the college presidents joined Green in a plea for state funding to go along with any legislatively approved state employee pay raises, known as CEC for “Change in Employee Compensation.” Green said when the Legislature votes to increase state employee pay by a given percentage, colleges and universities only get funding for half the amount, and have to make up the rest from student tuition. That’s because much of their operations are funded by tuition rather than state appropriations. 

Until 2010, lawmakers often approved a “fund shift” to cover that difference with state general funds. Providing that fund shift next year, to cover Little’s recommended 5% increase in employee compensation, would cost roughly $10 million, according to calculations by the Legislature’s budget and policy office.

Green urged lawmakers to address this, “so that we can find a way to pay our people over the long term.” He said, “We rely on the support of our elected officials to help us keep tuition rates from rising and increasing the burden on our Idaho students.”

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, asked for data on how much tuition has been raised since 2010, saying she’s “very concerned.”

“What we’re really doing is a fund shift to our students, which is really an increase to our working families in Idaho – when we’re asking them to go on,” Troy said. That was a reference to Idaho’s go-on rate, the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college, which is among the lowest in the nation.

Green said, “In the last two years, we have not raised tuition and that was our point.”

Last year, he said, “All our institutions, we really split the CEC in half, so we only gave our employees half the increase so we can fund it. All four of us really have no choice,” he said, as the other college and university presidents all nodded.

Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton, who also had her budget hearing before JFAC on Tuesday, said her four-year college in Lewiston is facing a staffing crunch so severe that she can’t “cannibalize more positions.”

“I cannot cut more. In fact, I need to add positions back,” she said.

Faculty turnover at LCSC is around 10%, she said; professional positions such as vice presidents and deans are at 20% turnover; and classified staff, from groundskeepers to administrative assistants to custodians, is seeing 29% turnover.

“I recently went to Costco and bought myself a Dyson stick vac so I could do a little custodial work for myself,” she said. “We cannot keep paying these people so poorly. It’s not a surprise that they’re finding higher-paying opportunities elsewhere. … We need your support,” she said, “toward financial sustainability for this college.”

LCSC was given extra funding by lawmakers to allow pay increases to be funded last year, and Pemberton thanked lawmakers for that. But for next year, she said, the college faces a stark choice: Raise its employee pay by just 2-3% when inflation is at 7%, or raise tuition 5.5%.

“At LC State, we’ve run the models,” she said. “We need to cover our gap by a 5.5% tuition increase.”

Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, said, “When we mandate a 5% CEC and then we only fund part of that, we’re putting the burden back on the students.”

Adams said the governor’s budget proposal funded the top priorities that each institution requested, including occupancy costs for newly finished buildings. He said if lawmakers want to switch the funds from those priorities to pay, “we’re open to have those conversations. This governor is one that supports higher education.”

JFAC is scheduled to hold budget hearings on the state’s community colleges on Wednesday; Idaho State University on Thursday; and the University of Idaho on Friday. Budget-setting in the joint committee is set to start Feb. 18.

This article originally appeared in Idaho Press. Read more at IdahoPress.com

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