Blank looks and long faces.
The two together spoke volumes this past week about the state of higher education in Idaho.
The blank looks were on the faces of lawmakers hearing requests for increased state funding of higher education. The long faces were worn by heads of Idaho’s colleges and universities after being told by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee there is no money to spare.
Kent Tingey, top assistant to Idaho State President Richard Bowen, was asked when he came out of the hearing room how much money the school got.
“None,” he said.
None is an exaggeration, but the University of Idaho, Idaho State, Boise State and Lewis-Clark State College face a lean year, and maybe many more.
Higher education received a budget of $178 million from the state general fund for the current fiscal year. But when Gov. Phil Batt ordered a 2.5 percent budget holdback, the schools lost $4.5 million of that.
Then this year, the governor proposed just $179.5 million - which will do little more than restore spending to last year’s level. The increase is less than 1 percent overall, and Tingey fears Idaho State will wind up with less money than this year.
Batt presented what he called a bare-bones budget, and lawmakers are not inclined to approve new taxes to provide more spending authority.
That could mean major changes in higher education, including soaring student fees. They’re already nearing $1,000 per semester for resident students, much more for out-of-staters and graduate students.
University of Idaho officials said they won’t be able to make do on the tight budget and President Robert Hoover talked about looking for whole programs to cut out.
That, in turn, could lead to more expense. In the past, students enrolled in a certain program have sued when the program is suddenly terminated. They usually win.
Instead of trimming whole programs, Bowen said, Idaho State may look at raising standards to cut enrollment. But he says that isn’t desirable.
School officials say they will have an extremely hard time coping with enrollment increases when their budget is essentially frozen.
The share of general state revenue used to support higher education has slipped from the 20 percent of a couple decades ago to about 12.4 percent in Batt’s budget blueprint. In the last few years, the state’s corrections system has siphoned off much of that money.
House Appropriations Chairman Robert Geddes, R-Preston, is sympathetic, but .. “There is no extra money,” he said. Batt has budgeted anticipated revenue down to nearly the last dollar.
“We are looking under every rock we can,” Geddes said. “If something turns up, (higher education) will be given top priority.”
Bowen isn’t optimistic.
The budget committee, he said, “has me convinced they don’t have any money. And the best they can tell, it’s going to continue.”