By Betsy Z. Russell
BOISE – North Idaho Rep. Heather Scott tried hard Tuesday to derail the community college budget – a third of which goes to fund North Idaho College – arguing that it was too generous, but failed, as the budget bill passed 48-22 and headed to the Senate.
“We are taking money from the general fund that we could be giving to our public schools and we’re putting them into the community colleges for programs such as ‘college outreach programs,’” Scott told the House. “Declining enrollment in our colleges? What about the enrollment in our schools?” she asked. “We’re maybe losing people from our state because their taxes keep going up because of their levies, when we’re worried about the colleges?”
She said, “I think there’s a lot of line items in this bill that are above and beyond, they can be removed.”
Ironically, community colleges charge local property taxes – so if their state funding were cut, they might actually charge more in local property tax levies.
Scott made a motion to return the community college budget bill, HB 294, to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. But after a 10-minute break in which she huddled with House majority and minority leaders, Scott withdrew her motion, saying she now understood that if the bill were voted down, that would be the effect – JFAC would have to write a new budget bill for community colleges.
The community college budget for next year, which JFAC set on Feb. 28, reflects a 6.7 percent increase in state general funds from this year’s level. Nearly 70 percent of Idaho’s community college funding comes from local property taxpayers.
The joint committee unanimously approved the budget for the state’s three community colleges – North Idaho College, the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls and the College of Western Idaho in Nampa. Among the 20 members of JFAC are the two other lawmakers from Scott’s district, Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, and Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the joint committee’s co-chair.
Specific line items included for North Idaho College next year are funding for a Title IX coordinator and for technology to help students with disabilities access materials at NIC, both requested by the college and recommended by Gov. Butch Otter.
Rep. Eric Redman, R-Athol, spoke out in favor of the bill. “Up in my district and also District 1, I know of many (high school) students, and I personally know ‘em because my children were part of them, that had dual enrollment with the community colleges,” he said. “So they are helping the public schools. There’s also an aviation business in Sandpoint that NIC is now having a special career-tech area to help get employees for that aviation business and drone businesses in the surrounding area. So they are definitely helping our public schools.”
Redman represents District 2 in Kootenai County; Scott, R-Blanchard, represents District 1, which takes in Bonner and Boundary counties. Both are in the service area of North Idaho College, the state’s oldest community college.
Scott told the House, “You know, the children in my district, there’s some of them that go hungry at night. And so, when you say this is helping the children, when my parents have to choose between paying their taxes for their levy increase or buying food, I just want to make that point. But that was not my main point. My main point is some of the line items in this bill I think need to be looked at and possibly removed, and we can do that by voting ‘no’ on this bill.”
Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, a close ally of Scott’s, also spoke out against the funding bill, as did Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley. “I just don’t think it’s the taxpayer’s position to do this,” Moon said. “Maybe they don’t need some of these positions.”
Nate said, “If there is even one question about line items, one spending increase … we need to question it. Just because we have money is no reason to spend it up.”
Among those speaking out in favor of the community college budget was Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, who said, “This is a good appropriations measure, and if we look at the state as a whole, we can see the important role that the community colleges are playing,” impacting the economy by training people for in-demand jobs. “It’s a reasonable appropriation for this year,” he said.
After the unexpectedly lengthy, hour-long debate, the bill passed on a 48-22 vote.