Archive for January 26, 2009
The state Board of Education met today and voted to back an increase in WWAMI medical school seats for Idaho from 20 to 40, at a rate of increase of 10 a year. WWAMI is a collaboration that allows students from Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho to attend the University of Washington’s medical school (the acronym stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho). The board also voted to “oversee an initiative to engage all stakeholder groups (ISU, UI, BSU, LCSC, University of Washington, VA Medical Center, the hospitals, and the Idaho Medical Association) to jointly develop a collaborative and comprehensive plan for establishment of a 4-year, Idaho-based MD program.”
The Twin Falls Times-News reports that a fight may be brewing over the startup of the Idaho Education Network, a $50 million statewide broadband network to serve local schools. Lawmakers unanimously approved the concept last year, but haven’t yet approved funding, but state Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney has moved ahead with the plans, and is looking for a supplemental appropriation for $100,000 in state matching funds. “I frankly don’t know where the money’s going to come from,” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, told Times-News reporter Jared Hopkins. “This is not the year to start new programs.” “It’s a good plan. It should be done,” echoed JFAC Co-Chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, but “putting an additional amount of money into a budget is unrealistic.”
Here’s a passage from the Times-News story: “Undaunted, Gwartney on Friday said he has found a ‘legal way around’ the Legislature if it refuses the request. He said state law allows him to issue an executive order to enter a contract and accept bids if ‘it’s in the best interest of the state.’ ‘If I don’t get the supplemental, I will take that action,’ said Gwartney. Bell and Cameron both expressed surprise at Gwartney’s statement. Cameron said appropriations are subject to the Legislature as expressed by the Idaho Constitution. ‘He may think he’s above the Constitution but I assure you he’s not,’ Cameron said. ‘It would behoove him to carefully think things through before taking that action.’ ” You can read the full story here in the Times-News.
House Transportation Committee members are still weighing the findings of the big performance audit of the Idaho Transportation Department, and how to respond to them. “If we all agree that ITD needs more money, there’s no way we can put off doing that,” Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said as he pondered the audit results. But, he said, lawmakers also need to tie any increased funding to correcting flaws in Idaho’s system for maintaining roads, as identified in the audit. “We need to create this checklist,” he said. “I think there’s general agreement that we have this asset that we have to maintain.” House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said, “We wanted the audit. We need to take advantage of the audit to now formulate where we go forward. … It is our responsibility.”
There’s a near-capacity crowd at the somber hearing this afternoon in the House Health & Welfare Committee, even though the most controversial of the rule changes being considered there already has won approval from the Senate Health & Welfare Committee; rules stand unless they’re rejected by the panels in both houses. “They still need to hear our opposition to it,” said Kelly Buckland, executive director of the State Independent Living Council. Advocates for the disabled maintain some of the budget cuts the rules implement will hurt disabled Idahoans without actually saving the state money, if the cuts in treatment hours force cause patients’ conditions to regress and mean they need more expensive, longer-lasting treatment instead. “All it does is shift the cost somewhere else,” Buckland said.
Here’s a sign of the times: Legislation that makes a one-word change in the law regarding annual adjustments in the homeowner’s exemption from property tax won unanimous approval in the House today. The reason for the change? As House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, explained to the House today, “Back in the heady days of 2005, the assumption was made that home values will always go up.” So the law tying the amount of the homeowner’s exemption to the Idaho Housing Index said that changes will match “the annual increase in the Idaho housing price index.” The one-word bill, HB 4, proposed by the state Tax Commission, changes the word “increase” to “change.” That way, if values go down, the exemption, too, would go down.
Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, announced today that he won’t be able to return before the end of the legislative session this year. Stennett, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer, said it was “very disheartening to not participate this session.” Though his prognosis remains positive, his recovery is demanding all of his energy and focus, Stennett said in a statement. Jon Thorson, former mayor of Sun Valley, is standing in for him. Senate Assistant Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, is acting minority leader.
Of the 41 undergraduate and graduate degree programs that the University of Idaho is proposing eliminating, few are popular, acting UI President Steven Daley-Laursen told JFAC this morning. “We have only 55 applications now on the table for entrance of new students,” between the 41 combined, he said. That change is part of a campus-wide reprioritization of programs that’s under way. But budget cuts overall will hit the UI hard, Daley-Laursen told lawmakers. Already, the university has cut $5 million due to the 4 percent holdbacks. For next year, Gov. Butch Otter is recommending an additional base reduction that brings those permanent cuts up to a total of 7 percent, which would make next year’s state appropriation to the UI $8.8 million below the original budget for this year.
The next cuts could include eliminating 5 percent, or 80, of the university’s faculty and staff positions, Daley-Laursen said, saying that’s something “we are prepared to consider.” All cuts would be of vacant positions; the university already has a hiring freeze. Currently there are 32 vacant faculty positions and 55 vacant staff positions. Daley-Laursen said he’s also planning a 75 percent cut in state funds for travel, a $2.3 million cut in university-wide operating expenses and a half-million-dollar cut in capital outlay.
“These funding reductions will be felt university-wide, by students, faculty and staff at all of our locations,” Daley-Laursen said. “We’ll see fewer overall programs and offerings for our students. We’ll see limits on our ability to attract and retain faculty and staff. We’ll see reduction of programs in human resources and positions in facilities. We’ll see elimination of three student computing labs and migration of network costs to students themselves. We’ll see reduction of funding for classroom technologies, network systems and the like.”
Milford Terrell, president of the state Board of Education, told legislative budget writers this morning, “We all are quite well aware of the economic times in which we live. I don’t need to remind you folks here in this committee of how difficult it is to budget and appropriate funds in this climate. … But I can also tell you this: Education is SO VERY important. I see it every day. I see what it has done in my life. I see what it does in the lives of the people I hire, in the lives of the people my business serves. … I am of the opinion that government cannot do everything and should not attempt to do everything for our citizens. But one thing we MUST do is ensure that we are being good stewards of our educational system. We must recognize the critical role education plays in economic recovery. If we are to find our way to better days, education must and will play a major role.”
Here’s a link to the latest episode of Idaho Reports, and also to the “after the show” online discussion in which I join Lt. Gov. Brad Little, BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, AP reporter John Miller and host Thanh Tan to discuss the goings-on of the second week of the legislative session. And here’s a link to the second week of the Legislature in pictures. Now we’re into the third week, in which lawmakers will delve into budgets for education.