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Idaho Senate OKs higher ed cuts amid fiery debate

BOISE - The Idaho Senate has voted along party lines to approve a budget for the state’s colleges and universities for next year that includes further state funding cuts, pushing the schools to rely more on student tuition and fees.

The budget bill, SB 1181, drew fiery debate after minority Democrats spoke out against it.

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said, since 2009, colleges and universities have been cut by $75 million in state funds, a 26.4 percent reduction. “It is the budget that has taken the biggest hit of any budget that we pass,” he said, “and this is our economic development engine that we are starving for resources.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, retorted that the minority party isn’t recognizing the need to balance the budget, a point Democrats disputed. “The electorate has placed us here as a guardian and as a watchdog over their pocketbook,” Davis declared.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “We’re talking about higher education here.” He noted that most Idaho students don’t even go on to higher ed, but those who do benefit greatly, including by earning higher salaries throughout their lives.

“Tuition in Idaho is still one of the best buys in this country,” Hammond said, “and yes, they will have to pay a little more. … This all costs money and the students have to bear some of that load.” He said, “Quite frankly I’m not going to feel bad about that. They’ve got to have some skin in the game as well, and it’s good for them.”

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the Senate, “Please understand while this may not be the budget you want to vote for, it is the best we can do given the situation we have, given the revenue stream that is projected.”

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I think we all recognize that we are in difficult times.” He lauded the state’s colleges and universities for “doing more with less.”

Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, who supported the bill, noted that while state general funds for universities would be cut again, an increase in total funds is anticipated in the budget for next year; that additional money, however, largely is from increased tuition paid by the fast-growing student population.

The Senate’s 28-7 vote sends the budget bill to the House.

Also approved in the Senate today was a bare-bones budget for Idaho’s community colleges, including North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene; that bill, SB 1180, calls for a 3.9 percent cut in state finding 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,were funded.

The higher education budget, which covers the state’s four-year colleges and universities, is the lowest level of state funding set since 2000, at $209.8 million in state general funds. That’s a 3.5 percent cut from this year’s state funding level - a $7.7 million cut - but a 5 percent increase in total funds.

The state Board of Education will consider tuition and fee increases for next year in April.

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