Idaho lawmakers crafting the next state budget are taking a little more time putting together part of the spending plan for higher education. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) voted Tuesday to delay setting the budget for the $10 million special programs for higher education until Monday. The main budget for state colleges and universities is being pushed back from Thursday to Monday. That delay is part of a domino effect stemming from holding the public education budget two days. JFAC’s budget analyst for higher education, Paul Headlee, is still working on the K-12 budget.
The decision to delay the higher ed special programs budget stems from $1.59 million in spending for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES). JFAC members weren’t critical of CAES, which leverages about $17 million in grants from the Idaho National Laboratory and other sources for research programs. Rather, the decision to delay came from concerns that moving the $1.59 million make it look like colleges and universities would be taking a larger spending reduction. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said that shifting the CAES money could be a roundabout way to make it appear that education spending had dropped further.
Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, said it makes sense to consider the CAES spending with the rest of the higher education budget. “We owe it to the process to do more thorough discussion of all the implications and the ramifications,” he said. Brackett added that the appearance of a larger cut for education could lead universities to ask for higher student fee increases. He’s against that action. “I don’t personally like to do that. We’ve already done that considerably and I don’t think it’s fair to students, to put an additional burden on them.”
JFAC co-chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he expects Idaho public universities and colleges to ask the State Board of Education for higher tuition and fees, but that he opposes that tack. “They have reserves they ought to be using instead of raising fees,” he said. Cameron called those reserves cash cows for the universities. In-state tuition at Idaho’s four four-year higher education institutions has gone up an average of more than 7 percent a year during the past decade. Cameron said JFAC could include instructions in the higher ed budget telling university presidents not to ask for tuition hikes. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said he’d support that effort. It’s unclear how the schools would deal with dwindling state support without raising tuition.
The decision to delay setting the special programs budget, which includes the CAES money, passed JFAC on a close 10-9 vote. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, who put together the budget, said he’s addressed the concerns about the fund shift for the research programs. “I spent a significant amount of time working with these universities,” he said. “I think we’ve come to an agreement that will not change if we hold this.”
JFAC is scheduled to set the K-12 public schools budget Wednesday. It accounts for more than half of Idaho’s general fund spending.