Idaho colleges and universities would see a 7.8 percent reduction in state and dedicated spending, a sum of $32.1 million, in the next budget approved by Idaho lawmakers Tuesday. The four Democratic lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) attempted to give higher education an additional $6 million from a reserve fund, but all 16 Republicans on JFAC opposed that idea. Higher education also saw a $10 million reduction in the current budget when JFAC re-balanced the state budget in February.
Idaho’s public colleges and universities, Boise State University, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University, and Lewis-Clark State College, would receive $377 million for the next school year. Most of that money comes – $217 million – comes from the state general fund.
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, put forward an alternative higher education budget that would shift an additional $6 million to universities. She said that money wouldn’t eliminate spending reductions to universities. “It doesn’t begin to fix the problem,” she said. “It just gives them a little bit more to work with.” She said that she’s disappointed that lawmakers haven’t done more to identify alternative sources of revenue instead of reducing budgets. “Anything that we can do that will help a little bit is better than not doing anything. Not doing anything has pretty much been our approach in the session.”
That extra $6 million would have come from a reserve fund, the Public School Facilities Cooperative Funding Program. Ringo said the fund was set up several years ago to help public schools, not universities, with building safety issues, but that schools have had a hard time getting access to that money. “That fund has not been tapped in all that time,” she said. “It probably will be by the (Plummer) Worley School District to the tune of $11 million.” When the public schools budget was set, Ringo tried to access that reserve fund to lessen reductions to schools.
Ringo said that even though the reserve isn’t for colleges, it should have gone to universities. "I feel comfortable borrowing from that fund in favor of the colleges and universities because their budgets have never been fat,” she said. “They’ve been cut severely. I think that as concerned as we are about public schools, we should increase our concern over higher ed. We’re weak in terms of enticing high school students to go on and get a post-high school education. I think that affects our ability to attract businesses that would offer jobs that would have good pay.”
“I think it’s a very reasonable request,” said Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, who also sponsored the extra money for universities. Bilyeu and the other three Democrats supported funding the $6 million for schools. She was the only Democrat to vote for the lower higher ed budget, which passed on a 17-3 vote.
Ringo said some Republicans on JFAC want universities to spend down their own reserves. “I think that the elephant on the table has been the unrestricted assets that the universities have,” she said. Ringo’s district includes the University of Idaho, and she said leaders from the university offered financial data showing why their reserves are targeted for facilities, maintenance, and other costs, though they will not be entirely drawn down during the next year.
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded to Ringo that there’s not only an elephant in the room. “I guess the donkey in the room is whether we want to pull from public schools to fund higher education,” he said. Cameron later explained that his comment was flippant and that he appreciated Ringo’s creativity on finding money for schools.