March 15, 2009 in Idaho Voices

Stimulus funds viewed as bandage for bleeding higher ed system

Betsy Z. Russell
 

BOISE – Mike Rush, director of the Office of the State Board of Education, says rather than “stimulus package,” he likes to refer to the federal bill as “the stem-the-bleeding package.”

He told lawmakers recently, “We think it will act much like a Band-Aid does – in other words, stop the bleeding and protect the wound” so healing can occur.

Higher education in Idaho will receive $35.4 million to offset the need to raise tuition, and to modernize, renovate or repair facilities. “We are proposing that 62 percent of that be spent in the year 2010, 38 percent in 2011,” Rush said. “We are proposing using the greatest percentage of the funding the first year, because that’s where the fixes are the hardest to come by.”

The state board is proposing to distribute the money to colleges and universities based on the budget cuts they’ve suffered, Rush said. “That puts just over $30 million at the colleges and universities, $3.2 million at community colleges and $1.5 million at the technical colleges.” In addition to that pot of money, Idaho will receive a half-million dollars in additional work-study funds from the stimulus by April 1, and another $42 million in increased Pell grants for needy students. Rush said, “It is critically important not to waste a good crisis.” Budget cuts force cuts in whatever can be cut quickly, he said. But the stimulus money will ease the state’s higher ed system through while it thinks more carefully and strategically about how best to make cuts for the long term, he said. “We cannot afford to make hasty decisions that cut our capacity at the very time that people are coming into the system and need training.”

Soon they’ll want capital back?

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, proudly informed the Senate that Lewiston has won the state boys’ basketball tournament for the first time since 1948. Lt. Gov. Brad Little responded, “Next thing, you’ll be wanting the capital back,” at which Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said he thought that might not be a bad idea.

Lewiston was Idaho’s first territorial capital, established in 1863. But in 1865, the capital was moved to Boise, a move so unpopular up north that the state seal reportedly was stolen away under dark of night and carted down south. In 1889, according to the Idaho Blue Book, “As a conciliatory move to keep north Idaho from seceding, the Territorial Legislature located the University of Idaho at Moscow.”

No immunization cut after all

Idaho’s Health and Welfare Department was planning to cut $2.7 million from its immunization program for low-income children in fiscal year 2010, Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told legislative budget writers this week, but the federal stimulus will send Idaho $2.9 million for that program, making the cut unnecessary.

“This allows us to continue at the same level as we have before,” Armstrong said. “It gives us another year to come up with an elegant solution for this ongoing,” on which he’s starting talks with insurers, he said.

Said Armstrong, “It’s good public policy, because we were not really pleased with having to pull back on immunizations in Idaho.” Former Gov. Phil Batt made increasing immunization rates among Idaho children a top priority, a push that continued under Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and significantly raised Idaho’s immunization rates for most age groups.

Another session in the annex?

What a prospect! Lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, reporters, citizens, state workers and more who’ve tried crowding into the cramped, stuffy, hot hearing rooms of the Capitol Annex for hearings, who’ve jostled in its hallways, who’ve peered around its oddly placed posts to see who’s speaking – all have been counting on next year’s legislative session moving back to its usual quarters, the gracious state Capitol – and this time a renovated, updated Capitol with new, spacious hearing rooms and modern conveniences.

But now comes word that the capitol renovation is 28 days behind schedule. Though that may not sound like a lot, the schedule is extremely tight – the project is supposed to be finished by Nov. 13, to allow move-in to begin before the 2010 legislative session starts next January.

State officials say they’re crossing their fingers. This is the Legislature’s second year in its temporary quarters while the state Capitol is being renovated.

Power rate bill passes Senate

The Senate has voted 31-2 in favor of SB 1123, legislation that allows utilities to seek binding advance rate-making decisions from the PUC to cover costs of new power generation or transmission facilities. “This provides a little bit of certainty in this marketplace which is very uncertain,” said Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, the bill’s sponsor.

Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, spoke out against the bill. “It switches the risk from the utility onto the ratepayers … by locking the rate in before the project even begins construction,” she said. “It’s a guarantee of cost recovery, whether or not the project ever provides useful service to the ratepayers.” But the only other senator to join her in opposing the bill was Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise. The Senate’s overwhelming approval moved the bill to the House.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com. For more news from Boise go to www.spokesman.com/boise.


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