Legislators killed the higher education budget on the House floor Monday morning, offering a sharp rebuke to Idaho’s college and university system and casting doubt on the Legislature’s ability to adjourn the 2020 session next week.
A wave of conservatives united to deal a fatal blow to the budget, citing a proposed increase that exceeded Gov. Brad Little’s recommendation, and continuing to oppose programming and hiring decisions.
As part of her plea for legislators to kill the budget, Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, cited her July 9 letter opposing diversity programs at Boise State University.
“A good deal of the intent behind that letter had to do with the cost of school,” Ehardt said. “I have received, from the time I have been here, letters and letters and letters from folks who are attending our universities because they are so concerned that tuition keeps going up and they cannot afford it.”
Notably, the presidents of Idaho’s four-year state institutions are freezing in-state tuition costs next year.
Twenty-seven other House members co-signed Ehardt’s letter, and several of them referenced it Monday.
Rep. Vito Barbieri, a Dalton Gardens Republican who signed Ehardt’s letter, said he had a problem with curriculum and “the whole bureaucracy” turning left.
“I can’t imagine the number of vice provosts that must have been hired by these universities when we’re talking about equality and inclusion instead of reading, writing and arithmetic,” Barbieri said. “We’ve gotta figure out a way to stop rubber stamping these budgets and begin to send the message that we do have a say on what is taught and we do have a say on who they are hiring, for what purposes they are hiring.”
The higher education budget, via House Bill 603, would have provided about $307 million in general fund spending for colleges and universities, a 0.3 percent increase. It would have funded Boise State University, Idaho State University, University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College. A separate budget bill funds Idaho’s community colleges.
The failed budget included line items for enrollment workload adjustments and occupancy costs. Sponsoring Rep. Caroline Nillson Troy, R-Genesee, said those were put in place to keep Lewis-Clark, U of I and ISU whole.
“We’ve been all proud here about how we’ve reduced taxes and lowered the cost of governance. But what we’ve really done is a shift and we’ve shifted that on families and students, the cost of higher education,” Troy said. “This budget rightfully shifts that cost back to the state.”
One reason Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, gave for opposing the budget was the thickness and glossiness of the packets universities mail to legislators.
“That tells me there is somewhere they could cut some money,” Scott said. “I think a lot of this money is not going to the kids at the school, it’s going to the employees’ salaries.”
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, criticized Republicans for voting against content they don’t personally agree with.
“This isn’t about ego or silos and lines in the sand, this is about our students and their well-being in the future,” Wintrow said.
But in the end, supporters were outgunned by the GOP supermajority.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is likely to rewrite the higher education budget with different funding levels and bring it back for consideration in the coming days or weeks. But killing the budget — the first of two budgets to die on the House floor Monday alone — could delay adjournment for the year.
Legislative leadership has been working hard to adjourn the session by March 20. But that deadline always seemed aspirational and would require a lot of moving pieces to align. Killing a high-profile budget — with no clear direction on what it would take to be rewritten and pass — may throw that out of alignment.
It was not immediately clear Monday when JFAC might reconvene to draft a new higher education budget.