Eye on Boise: Rate of tuition hikes ‘counterproductive’

BOISE – The answer to Idaho’s higher education funding conundrum – more students, less money – can’t just be raising tuition rates further, the head of the state Board of Education told Idaho lawmakers last week.

“Long term in Idaho, we cannot continue to raise tuitions at the rate we have in the past. It’s an unsustainable course,” Richard Westerberg told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

He noted that in 1991, students paid 12 percent of the cost of their education in tuition and fees; today, it’s 39 percent. Though Idaho’s tuition rates remain lower than some other states, he said, “In Idaho, our ability to pay is less,” due to lower incomes. “Remember, our goal is to get more students to go on to higher education,” he said. “If we continue to raise the cost to do that, that seems to me to be counterproductive.”

Idaho has cut funding for higher education for several years running; Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget for next year calls for another small cut on top of those decreases.

“Doing more with less isn’t just a mantra anymore, it’s a reality,” Westerberg said. “That’s our world.” Higher education has seen a 22 percent cut in funding since fiscal year 2009, he said, even as enrollments have soared to record levels. “It has had a significant impact on all of our campuses.”

Amending ‘conscience law’

Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, says he’s been getting heat ever since the last legislative session about last year’s hastily enacted “conscience law,” which is aimed at letting health care providers decline to provide abortion-related services that violate their conscience but also allows providers to decline patient-requested end-of-life care. Smith even heard about it at a presentation at his local Rotary Club, where the message was that living wills, advance health care directives and even doctor’s orders and do-not-resuscitate orders can be overridden by the law.

“I can’t help thinking there was an inadvertence,” in including that clause in the bill, Smith told the House Judiciary Committee. “I don’t think the crafters intended this sort of disruption in those areas.”

So Smith drafted a bill adding a clause to the law citing Idaho’s existing Natural Death Act, which guarantees that living wills and such orders must be complied with, and stating that the measure can’t override that. The Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, clearing the way for full hearings.

Political dominoes

Now that Otter has named former Sen. Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, chairman of the state Tax Commission to replace Royce Chigbrow, jockeying is on for Geddes’ Senate seat.

Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, said he wants the seat. If he gets it, then a new state representative would have to be appointed to take his House seat.

Geddes started his new job immediately. He also quit his former job as a geologist at Monsanto Corp. to take the full-time state job.

Chigbrow faces allegations of using his position to help friends and family members.

One in three gets aid

One in three Idahoans received help from the state Division of Welfare in 2010, from food stamps to Medicaid to Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, Russ Barron, division administrator, told lawmakers in his budget presentation.

More and more people are coming to the division who’ve never sought public assistance before, due to unemployment. “We are faced with an ever-increasing demand for services, and we’ve had to make difficult decisions about how to trim budgets,” he said.

Among the cuts: People who apply for food stamps no longer are forced to comply with child support services as a condition of receiving food stamps. Aggressive efforts to locate nonpaying parents for child support also have been dropped. Job assistance for food-stamp recipients ages 18-50 who don’t have children and aren’t disabled has been cut off. And 1,400 recipients have been booted off the Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled program, while another 600 had their benefits reduced.

Car fees would rise

A legislative task force charged with finding alternative funding for Idaho State Police and state parks trail programs to replace gas taxes has voted unanimously to propose a $10 vehicle registration fee increase to make up the ISP’s lost funding and permanently restore the trails funding from gas taxes. Shifting that trail money, task force member Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, was a “doozy” of a mistake; it reflects how much fuel is burned in off-road vehicles and boats.

The $10 per vehicle increase would raise $15.6 million a year, starting next year.

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