By the year 2000, an Idaho family of four will be paying nearly $400 a year in taxes to keep state prison inmates locked up.
That’s nearly double what the family pays today, and it will come from one of two places - tax dollars that now go somewhere else or a tax increase.
The tax hike is possible, some state lawmakers say. But if trends continue, the money could come mainly at the expense of students and teachers at the state’s colleges and universities.
Education supporters say the trend is bad for tomorrow’s students, who may be priced out of college, and bad for Idaho, which is putting its economy and quality of life at risk.
“It costs so much to go here. We don’t have a lot of options,” said Yvonne Sebastian, a junior at Idaho State University in Pocatello, where student aid - mainly loans - has more than tripled in the past 10 years.
“It’s the dumbing-down of Idaho - and that’s really sad to me,” said Cecil Ingram, a Boise Republican and chairman of the state Senate Agriculture Committee.
All areas of state spending suffer from a skyrocketing Correction Department budget.
Twenty years ago, corrections accounted for just 2 percent of the state’s general fund - the revenue generated from sales and income taxes. Today, it’s 5 percent. Only Texas and Maryland spend more.
But no other area of state spending in Idaho has seen the steady decline that higher education has - 19 percent of the state’s budget 20 years ago, just 12 percent today.
“I have the opinion a lot of students are going out of state for their education,” said Cathy Dellett, 52, of Twin Falls, who took part in a recent panel discussion. “I think if we did spend more, we’d get some of those students to stay in Idaho.”
The two biggest categories of state spending now are public schools (kindergarten through 12th grade), and Health and Welfare. But the percentage of spending on public schools has been steady during the past six years and Health and Welfare spending is declining as Idaho institutes welfare reform.
“The responsibility for determining whether we spend money on corrections or higher education or anything else rests solidly with the Legislature,” said Mary Stohr of Boise State’s criminal justice program. “It’s reflecting what the people want - the lock-‘em-all-up mentality. I understand it and appreciate it for serious and violent people, but I don’t think they understand the true costs.”
You can see the true costs at Unit 15 of the Idaho State Correctional Institution, a 536-bed addition to the state’s largest prison. The lockup south of Boise recently held 769 inmates; three more and Idaho would have a judge breathing down its neck.
Unit 15 is designed to prevent that. It is part of a $30 million prison expansion that also includes a bigger chapel and work areas for inmates learning trades. The 536 beds will be filled the day the addition opens this winter, bringing the number of prison beds statewide to 4,069.
Down the road, near the slaughterhouse where inmates trim meat for convict meals, a private company will build and operate a new prison for 1,250 inmates. It will cost taxpayers $17.5 million a year - $48,000 a day - to operate.
That’s still not enough.
The Correction Department figures that today’s inmate count of 4,000 could double by 2007. That means doubling prison spending from $70 million to $140 million.
At that rate, prison spending will catch higher education by 2010. Idaho would share that distinction with California and Florida.
Lawmakers are exploring ways to reel in prison spending, including a proposal by Gov. Phil Batt to make some felonies into misdemeanors and allow greater flexibility with parole.
But a key figure in the corrections debate, state Rep. Celia Gould, R-Buhl, said she’s pessimistic Idaho’s prison population will be reduced.
“The reality is we balance the needs of all the state agencies,” said Gould, judiciary committee chair. “It’s also taking from Health & Welfare and other services …. it’s a problem nationwide.”
In January, legislators will face an emergency request for an extra $9 million to house inmates they didn’t anticipate this year.
Suddenly, Idaho’s prison budget is $78 million, up from the $69 million approved just months ago.
It may go up even more. Officials are expected to ask for another $7 million for the next budget year.
The ballooning budget masks efficiencies in the department. Idaho spends $46.75 a day, or $17,063 a year, per inmate. That’s among the lowest in the nation.
An Idaho college education is a bargain, too. The state has the lowest resident tuition of any in the West.
But Idaho also spends less on its students and teachers than all but one neighboring state, Montana.
Although its share of state spending is falling, the money lawmakers allocate to higher education has more than tripled in the past 20 years to $179 million today. But legislators last year warned college presidents that most new spending will have to come from student fees and other sources.
This comes as more students arrive. Idaho doesn’t project college enrollments, but the number of state high school students is surging with what demographers call the “Baby Boom Echo.”
During the next 10 years, the children of Idaho’s Baby Boomers are expected to grow in number by about 10 percent to 283,000, census projections show.
If current trends continue, they’ll find an Idaho college education isn’t the bargain it once was: It will cost them more money, classes will be larger and some of the best teachers will have left.
The University of Idaho is seeing a brain drain already, and not just among teachers lured away by the challenge of a Harvard or a Berkeley.
“We lose them to the Utah States, the Nevadas, the Washington States because we can’t afford them,” said U of I President Robert Hoover.
Idaho’s future college students also will face double-digit tuition hikes.
The Washington-based Justice Policy Institute said the root of the conflict in Idaho, as in other states, is the rise in non-violent offenders in prison.
University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer says states that fail to invest in higher ed during times of healthy budgets are at risk of letting their systems slide into atrophy. The alternative, he said, is to raise tuitions so high that fewer students can afford them.
Raiding college budgets risks creating classes of “haves and havenots,” Frohnmayer said. “Idaho natives who get left behind will look in envy at people building mansions in the Foothills.”
Additional money for colleges and universities doesn’t have to come from state coffers, said House Education Committee Chairman Fred Tilman, R-Boise.
Tilman agrees with corporate leaders who say colleges must slim down, cut costs where possible, and give the public what it wants.
One way of accomplishing that is combining services. ISU and the U of I recently combined admissions and registration at University Place, a center they share in Idaho Falls.
Other examples: High-tech firms are bankrolling a new engineering building at BSU, ISU has asked religious groups to provide religious studies classes, expansion of “distance learning” programs over the Internet, even a proposal from U of I to share a football stadium with Washington State.
Corporate leaders say higher education doesn’t just fill the talent pool with new workers. It’s also a recruiting tool for new businesses.
The state is putting these attractions at risk, said Jim Hawkins, a successful businessman when he was was lured by former Gov. Cecil Andrus to become state commerce director. Hawkins now works as a U of I consultant.
“There is a defined return on investment in higher education,” Hawkins said. “Show me the return on investment in corrections. We’ve lost the importance of what education is and what it can bring to our state.”
MEMO: Ken Miller is a staff writer with The Idaho Statesman. Teri Anderson of the Post-Register in Idaho Falls and Bill Roberts of the Statesman contributed to this report.
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