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Lawmakers chop higher-ed funding

Federal money will hold off fee hikes

BOISE – Legislative budget writers are slashing 5.8 percent in state funding for Idaho’s four-year public universities during the next fiscal year and using federal stimulus money to help temper student fee increases.

Lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Thursday rolled out a higher education budget that spends a total of $398.2 million for the University of Idaho, Idaho State University, Boise State University and Lewis-Clark State College.

Last year, the Legislature allocated $447.7 million to the schools for the current fiscal year.

The proposal for the next fiscal year, which begins in July, knocks funding for Idaho public universities below levels established two years ago, when lawmakers set aside about $399.1 million.

The committee approved the budget, but reserved the right to come back after lawmakers sort out a plan to save money by reducing paychecks for most state employees during fiscal year 2010.

Earlier this month, the committee decided to cut worker pay by 3 percent, while giving agency managers discretion to cut 2 percent more, including through layoffs and furloughs.

The proposal, however, hit a snag after lawmakers realized it may be illegal to reduce salaries for tenured university professors. The budget panel is seeking advice from Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office.

Under the proposed budget, the state would split $35.5 million in federal stimulus money for Idaho public universities and colleges over the next two fiscal years.

The bulk of the money – $30.6 million – would go to the four-year public universities, with the rest spent on community and technical colleges.

The federal payout for Idaho higher education will help fill in past budget shortfalls and alleviate some of the financial pressure on these schools to transfer the burden to students.

“It will be used to prevent higher student fees,” Matt Freeman, a higher education budget analyst for the legislative services office, told the Associated Press.

The University of Idaho has drafted a proposal to increase student fees by more than 8 percent for the next school year. Boise State officials plan to seek a 5 percent increase.