Republican Gov. Phil Batt indicated Thursday he won’t fight a legislative decision to reclaim the right to decide how much money each university receives in state aid this year.
And Batt speculated that ending state Board of Education control over division of the more than $160 million a year to the schools could result if lawmakers decide whether the University of Idaho or Boise State University should control expanded engineering education in southwestern Idaho.
“If they get involved heavily in this, they open the door to going back to the way things were, and I’m not opposed to that,” Batt said. “But I don’t see that happening. This is probably an ad hoc situation that won’t affect the way they do business.”
The board currently doles out the legislative allocation based on a formula that recognizes the impact of enrollment increases and other variations among Idaho, Boise State, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College.
Years ago, however, it was the Legislature that made the decision on the amount each school would receive in a heated atmosphere of regionalism.
Batt maintained there were justifications for both approaches. Lawmakers still dole out cash for public works on a project-by-project basis that is often overwhelmed by regionalism. And the tightfisted budget Batt has proposed has lawmakers wondering where the money is going to come from to underwrite their special interests.
Batt made his comments as the board began what many hope will be the final debate on whether the University of Idaho or Boise State University will control expanded engineering education in southwestern Idaho.
Micron Technology Inc. has put the pressure on the state to ignore an independent consultant’s evaluation that Idaho should continue to control the engineering program in Boise. The company offered the board $6 million if it sets up an independent engineering program run by Boise State.
At least one board member has called that a bribe, but some southwestern Idaho lawmakers feel that gift would be hard to turn down, especially in an atmosphere of conservative budgeting to free up cash for tax relief.
For his part, Batt said again he has no preference on whether Idaho or Boise State controls engineering education in Boise. He said that while he is aware of some lawmaker interest in the decision, he has spoken with no legislator about it.
The governor also said he would rather not be faced with deciding whether to back the board or the Legislature if the two took opposing positions on the engineering school. And he acknowledged that an independent school at Boise State opened the door to a third independent engineering school in eastern Idaho, where the University of Idaho is also running an engineering program.
“One of the questions is can we afford to disperse our programs,” Batt said. “I don’t have the total answer to that.”
And for all the controversy, there remained a serious question about whether the budget proposal made by Batt for higher education includes enough money to finance any engineering expansion in Boise by either school.
A preliminary analysis indicated the Boise program could only be underwritten if money was diverted from accommodating increased enrollment or providing employees with the same 5 percent pay raise Batt promised other state workers.
Batt’s education budgets were still being scrutinized by legislative budget writers on Thursday. They are trying to see just how little extra cash is available when $40 million in revenue is siphoned off for property tax relief. Some homeowners have already called the sum a pittance.
The presidents of both the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls and North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene said the new governor’s recommendation leaves each of them tens of thousands of dollars short of the state aid they need to avoid cutting back some services or programs.
North Idaho President Robert Bennett acknowledged the mood against any new spending. But he told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee his school is growing so rapidly it will need another classroom building soon and the state should start planning for it now.
State Library Board Chairman Freeman Duncan, a former Republican legislator from Post Falls, did much the same thing when he made his pitch for $750,000 to help improve state public libraries.
But while individual lawmakers suggested more needed to be done, there remained a sense of confidence among conservative leaders that they can hold a majority against increases.