‘We are left with no other option:’ Lawmakers cut into Boise State’s budget

(UPDATED, 3:43 p.m., with comments from Boise State University President Marlene Tromp.) 

Legislators came up with budget numbers for the state’s higher education system — and sliced $409,000 from Boise State University’s bottom line.

Conservatives said the cut didn’t go far enough — but Boise State President Marlene Tromp said the decision will have “a real impact” on employees. Either way, Wednesday’s budget surgery was the latest chapter in a simmering public feud between Boise State and conservative lawmakers, who say the state’s largest university has persisted in using taxpayer dollars to pursue a social justice agenda.

“We’ve tried for over a year to have our voices heard by the university, and we have been largely unsuccessful,” said Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville. “We are left with no other option.”

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee went along with the Crabtree option, but not without grumbling from both sides of the aisle.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, said the $409,000 figure was arbitrary and “disappointing.” He and fellow conservative Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, pegged the cost of social justice programs on the four-year campuses at more than $18 million.

Giddings pushed a plan to plan to cut more than $18 million from the higher ed budget — and cut the Boise State budget by more than $17 million; JFAC passed Crabtree’s version of the budget before Giddings’ version could come up for a vote.

Crabtree’s budget “is nowhere near close to sending the message,” Nate said.

Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, said lawmakers were buying into a special interest “narrative” about social justice — an apparent reference to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative group that has been sharply critical of the state’s higher education system.

“I think what we’re doing today is putting our politics before our students,” Nash said.

Boise State’s inclusion programs are simply an attempt to reach out to students who don’t feel they’ve been heard, said Nash, who compared Boise State’s programs to similar initiatives at private and politically conservative, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Nash was admonished by JFAC co-chair Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, who told Nash to confine his comments to Idaho’s public institutions.

While Wednesday’s debate centered on Boise State, the budget bill also carries legislative “intent language” that also applies to the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College. By January, the four schools would need to report to JFAC that no money, from the general fund or student fees and tuition, were used “to support social justice ideology student activities, clubs, events and organizations on campus.”

Ultimately, JFAC passed the higher ed budget and the $409,000 Boise State cut on a 16-3 vote. Nate, Giddings and Rep. Wendy Horman voted no.

By the numbers, the higher education budget would provide $315.2 million of general fund taxpayer dollars to the four-year schools, a 2.6 percent increase. That doesn’t count other funding sources — particularly student tuition and fees — that would bring the higher ed budget to $631.4 million.

The $315.2 million general fund figure matches Gov. Brad Little’s request. And the $409,000 Boise State cut isn’t a cut to higher ed’s bottom line. The money would go to Lewis-Clark, to cover employee pay raises. In January, President Cynthia Pemberton had said Lewis-Clark would need to seek a tuition hike, to invest in staffing. On Wednesday, she said the $409,000 would allow Lewis-Clark “to join our sister institutions in freezing tuition for the second straight year.”

As for the higher education budget bill, it still will need to pass both houses in order to reach Little’s desk. The bill could face turbulence in the House, which killed two versions of a higher ed budget in 2020 before finally passing a spending plan.

Tromp: ‘We want to be collaborative partners’

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Tromp said Wednesday’s vote underscores the need to continue a dialogue with legislators — including conservatives who have decried diversity and inclusion programs that predate Tromp’s July 2019 arrival at Boise State.

“We’re listening,” Tromp told Idaho Education News. “We’re listening to our legislators. We’re listening to Idaho. We want to be collaborative partners.”

But, she said, considerable misinformation surrounds the debate — including the claim that Boise State is spending $17 million on social-justice programs. The bulk of the university’s budget goes into staff salaries and benefits. “We certainly aren’t spending recklessly on any kind of programming.”

The $409,000 represents well less than 1 percent of Boise State’s overall budget of $240.3 million — and Little proposed a $255.7 million budget for 2021-22. Even so, said Tromp, the proposed budget would have a real impact, since the university would have to further cut personnel costs.

Corporate donations and grants have covered many of Boise State’s diversity and inclusion programs, but Tromp was reluctant to say the university could simply cover the $409,000 through fundraising. For one thing, Tromp isn’t sure the JFAC “intent language” would allow it.

“We don’t want to just fill the bucket in a way that’s going to send them back to cut us again,” Tromp said.  “I think there’s a lot still to understand.”

The other higher education budgets

JFAC spent much of Wednesday morning hashing out higher education budget bills, approving them with relatively little debate.

  • Budget-writers gave the four-year schools and the community colleges the green light to spend $72.7 million in federal coronavirus funding, from a spending bill then-President Trump signed into law in December.
  • JFAC unanimously approved a $51.8 million general fund budget for the community colleges, a 7.5 percent increase. Here as well, the state funding is just one component in the budget, since community colleges also collect student tuition and fees and receive local property taxes.
  • In another unanimous vote, JFAC approved a $26.6 million budget for State Board of Education “special programs,” essentially a flat budget from this year. The biggest item in this budget is the Opportunity Scholarship, a need-based scholarship for students attending Idaho colleges and universities.

All of these budget bills also must pass both houses.

Idaho Education News covered Wednesday’s hearing remotely.

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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