Analysis: Colleges and universities face an unpredictable legislative session

No offense, K-12.

But higher education really could be a fun reporting gig at the 2020 Idaho Legislature.

Four big stories — which all unfolded after the 2019 session — make for a fascinating 2020:

Budget cuts. The fiscal forecast for higher ed is, well, unsettled. All of the state’s two- and four-year colleges had to cut 1 percent from their budget this year — and they’ll have to follow it up with a 2 percent cut next year. It’s all part of a bigger cost-cutting plan from Gov. Brad Little, affecting nearly all state agencies, but not K-12.

For Boise State University and the University of Idaho, the Little spending order translates to about $1 million in cuts this year, $2 million the next year.

On top of that, the U of I faces an even deeper spending hole: a $14 million shortfall, which could balloon to $22 million in the next couple of years. New President C. Scott Green has pledged to balance the budget this year, however painfully.

Green inherited this mess. Still, expect some pointed questions about how the university’s finances got so far out of whack. And, perhaps, some discussions about whether the cost-cutting plans affect the education students receive — or compromise the long-term health of Idaho’s two- and four-year schools.

Tuition freeze. On Dec. 12, the U of I, Boise State, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College agreed to freeze tuition for one year, for in-state undergraduate students.

The presidents of Idaho’s four-year institutions — Kevin Satterlee of Idaho State University, C. Scott Green of the University of Idaho, Marlene Tromp of Boise State University and Cynthia Pemberton of Lewis-Clark State College — announce a one-year tuition freeze at a Dec. 12 news conference. (Sami Edge, Idaho Education News.)

It’s a bold move because it will take a bigger bite out of the institutions’ bank accounts than Little’s budget cuts. The four institutions collected $16 million in new money from tuition increases this year, but that figure also includes graduate tuition and out-of-state tuition not covered by the freeze. The U of I and Idaho State will forgo $2 million to $3 million apiece, Boise State even more.

Politically, the tuition freeze is a sure-fire hit. After all, there isn’t much of a constituency clamoring to pay more to go to college. But lawmakers could and should still ask some thoughtful questions about the move. They should ask the presidents to define success; do they have goals for attracting new applicants and for keeping current students on campus? And does the foregone tuition revenue compromise the very student experience the presidents hope to make more attractive and affordable?

New faces. It doesn’t seem like only six months ago that Green and Boise State President Marlene Tromp started on their respective jobs. They’ve both spent much of their first six months introducing themselves to their new campus communities — in Tromp’s case, going so far as to run out onto the blue turf with the Boise State football team at the start of a home game.

But neither new president has come before the Legislature. Yet.

They both have storylines that should connect with lawmakers. Green is an Idaho native and a U of I alumnus. Tromp went to high school in Green River, Wyo. — a small community that is politically, socially and economically a near clone of many communities in rural Idaho. But will they resonate with lawmakers? What kind of reception will Tromp get from the House Education Committee? It’ll be interesting to see.

Political backlash. Which brings us back to that other big higher education story from the legislative off-season.

It also doesn’t seem like only six months ago that 28 House Republicans welcomed Tromp to Idaho with a pointed letter urging her to disavow a laundry list of campus diversity and inclusion programs.

Tromp didn’t hunker down in the face of political pressure — instead, she made a point of meeting with conservative lawmakers such as House Majority Leader Mike Moyle and outspoken House Education member Barbara Ehardt, the author of the letter. But she didn’t yield ground either, saying it’s her job to ensure that all students have the support they need to succeed.

Tromp might have defused some of the controversy by reaching out to critics. But some lawmakers have openly talked about trying to defund Boise State. The threat of defunding could be far-fetched — for one thing, there’s no mechanism in a higher education budget bill to target an institution or its programs.

So what about 2020?

Even last winter, some conservatives weren’t happy with what Idaho was spending on higher ed.

The 2019 Legislature did approve a 3.5 percent budget increase for higher education, considerably smaller than the 6.3 percent spending boost afforded to K-12. The House passed the budget on a 51-19 vote — still a comfortable margin, but closer than the House vote on any of the seven K-12 budget bills.

Nearly all of the opposition to the higher education budget came from Republicans who co-signed Ehardt’s letter in July.

Granted, that was last year. But it all suggests something about this year.

A new feature:Each Thursday, Kevin Richert will offer a weekly analysis of the latest in education policy and education politics. Look for it here.

More reading: The 2020 Legislature and K-12 issues. A look ahead.





Kevin Richert

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 "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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