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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Boise

Otter’s rejection of two U of I budget requests prompts JFAC discussion about higher ed spending priorities…

The two major budget requests for next year from the University of Idaho – for Phase 2 of a library expansion for which lawmakers funded the first phase last year, and for funding and 3.8 positions to address needs of students with mental health issues and those on the autism spectrum – weren’t recommended for funding by Gov. Butch Otter, and members of the Legislature’s joint budget committee had lots of questions about that this morning.

“The governor is emphasizing the task force recommendations,” David Hahn, budget analyst for Otter’s Division of Financial Management, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “These two line items were not part of the task force’s recommendations.”

Hahn said Otter focused the general fund increases in his proposed higher education budget for next year on “those task force recommendations, along with what I would call ‘continuity of operations,’” including startup costs for the College of Eastern Idaho, enrollment workload adjustments, occupancy costs for newly opening college buildings, career-technical education needs, and a $5 million expansion of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program. Those items, plus a few others, add up to a figure “closing in on $20 million within the framework of the higher education budget,” Hahn said.

Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, said, “I certainly appreciate the priorities of the governor’s office and I think we are moving in the right direction. … But really, my question … is around, we seem to be, or it appears to me, that we are using a very broad brush to take out some of these line items.” He said his concern with higher education is that the state is pushing hard to get lots more people into the system, but he wonders whether it’ll be able to properly serve them as it works toward its 60 percent goal. “Are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater?” Agenbroad asked Hahn. “Please help me understand that we are not.”

“I can assure you that we are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater here,” Hahn replied. “Let’s look at this carefully here. Over the years, the governor has funded, to the extent possible, within available funds, line items for the institutions. … We’ve done the best we can recommending those line items. In the final year of his final term, he put together two task forces, higher education task force and workforce development task force. And the emphasis was on the system and on student-centric areas.”

“And that’s what you’re seeing,” Hahn said, “is how to figure out how to address some critical needs in the system. That’s why you’re seeing the CEO proposal. That’s why you’re seeing the $500,000 for an integration consultant. The idea here is we have to move from this siloed system to a ‘system-ness.’ That’s a change in direction from where we’ve been in the past, but it’s an important one for us to look at.”

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair, said, “We’ve had a very clear path and a very clear template with the K-12 task force. Is it your suggestion, then, that the higher ed task force recommendations and plan procedure is totally in place and totally available and known, so we can follow it?”

Hahn said, “The answer is an emphatic yes. I think you heard a good outline of that by Dr. Linda Clark in the opening comments. They produced a solid package of recommendations. That task force met I believe upwards of six times. And they’ve done wonderful work. So, yes.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said, “As a member of the higher ed task force, I understand and support the recommendations that we made, and we were all very excited about them. But when we made those recommendations, we knew there would have to be some additional funds allocated,” she said. “There were costs involved. I guess my concern is, are we cutting our colleges and universities to fund these new recommendations? Because if so, I think that may cause us more grief down the road.”

Bell told Hahn, “I don’t know how you can answer that, but you go right ahead – you’re a big boy.”

Hahn said, “My father always emphasized if you don’t have anything to say, then keep your mouth shut. I think I might take his advice.”

The higher education task force recommendations actually didn’t include the proposed new higher education CEO and the $500,000 consultant’s study of how to consolidate back-office functions among the universities, though one of its 12 recommendations was to look into centralizing functions such as payroll, human resources and IT to achieve efficiencies, and another called for the state Board of Education to “take immediate action to put a leadership structure in place necessary to execute the change in management needed to move higher education toward Systemness.” As Idaho Education News reported in November, seven business executives who served on the 36-member task force sent a letter to Otter about two weeks after the task force concluded its work calling for creating the CEO position. Otter proposed it, and the state Board of Education endorsed it last week.

The library expansion line item at the U of I that went unfunded in the governor’s budget called for 5.75 new positions and $1.8 million in ongoing general fund spending next year to expand the U of I’s research portfolio and achieve Carnegie R1 status, a process that started last year.

The other item requested $319,900 from the general fund for additional workers to address crisis management and critical support for students with autism spectrum disorders, through the “Raven Scholars” program; two student support case managers to provide crisis intervention, short-term counseling and referral support for students, and coordinate with the campus’s suicide intervention and mental health assessment programs.

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked about that proposal, and whether suicide and mental illness issues are increasing at the U of I. “That item is targeted on supporting students who may be facing some special challenges,” UI President Chuck Staben responded. “Suicide is a very difficult to assess and totally tragic symptom of mental health issues, typically. We have had suicides, fortunately none this year. There was a very visible one at our sister institution, WSU.”

“What we do see is a massive increase in students who are seeking counseling in mental health,” Staben told lawmakers. “Frankly our facilities, our folks who provide those services are fairly overwhelmed. This is a common pattern through the United States. And as you know, Idaho doesn’t have a lot of community mental health support, so when you combine all of those things, yes, we are seeing problems in our students.”

Staben added, “I know this is across the nation, and frankly, it’s not just in universities, it’s in our society.”

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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