Higher ed budget in Idaho is lowest since 2000

BOISE – Idaho’s colleges and universities will have to rely more on student tuition and fees under a budget lawmakers set Friday.

“I know that universities have borne a heavier burden than other entities,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Legislature’s joint budget committee. “That’s not because we want them to. … They are much more able to adapt and work through this than any of the other agencies we are setting budgets for.”

Cameron pushed for deeper cuts, slicing an additional $1.59 million from the higher education budget, but his move narrowly failed in the joint committee. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee also rejected, on a straight party-line vote, a move by Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, to tap the unused balance in a school building fund for an extra $4.8 million to ease the university budget cuts.

“There are moneys available there, and I don’t see letting them lay there when we can put them to good use,” Ringo said. “We are in a difficult economic situation. How we are going to come out of it is going to depend on some of the decisions we make now.”

The budget is the lowest for Idaho’s colleges and universities since 2000, at $209.8 million in state general funds. That’s a 3.5 percent cut from this year’s state funding level – $7.7 million less – but a 5 percent increase in total funds. The increase in total funds comes largely from fee hikes approved last April, after this year’s budget was set. Gov. Butch Otter had called for just a 1.3 percent cut in general funds and a 6.4 percent increase overall.

Lawmakers included $1.59 million in state funds to pay for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls, a joint project of Boise State University, Idaho State University, the University of Idaho and the Idaho National Laboratory; that funding also comes with nearly 15 staff positions. Cameron wanted that funded but wanted the universities to take the money from within their existing budget.

Cameron said the joint committee’s goal is to balance the budget by cutting another 2.2 percent beyond the governor’s recommendations, but members understand that some areas of the state budget can’t take further cuts – including corrections, Idaho State Police, the judicial branch and agricultural research.

“In my opinion … we have made wise decisions in holding those entities harmless,” Cameron said. “Unfortunately that means for others that they pick up more of the slack.”

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said Cameron’s right. “We can’t have any whining and sniveling or anything else when it comes to that final number,” Wood said.

But Ringo countered, “What some people may consider whining and sniveling others consider advocacy.”

Although the state Board of Education in December allowed Idaho’s colleges and universities to seek student tuition and fee increases beyond the usual 10 percent limit this year, Mike Rush, executive director of the office of the state board, said he doesn’t expect them to do so based on the new budget.

Rush said higher education in Idaho is “still a bargain,” but he’s concerned about a growing “ability-to-pay gap,” particularly as Congress considers cutting financial aid.

The state board will consider tuition and fee increases for next year in April.

JFAC also set a bare-bones budget for Idaho’s community colleges on Friday, including North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, calling for a 3.9 percent cut in state funding next year and a 5.6 percent cut in total funds. None of the community colleges’ requests for funding, including those to cover enrollment increases, was funded. The governor had recommended a $413,300 decrease in state funds; JFAC more than doubled that to $933,800. The even bigger drop in overall funds reflects the loss of one-time federal stimulus money the colleges got this year.

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