Lawmakers zero out ‘CEO’ proposal

Legislative budget-writers zeroed out a proposed higher ed “CEO” position.

They also slashed a companion proposal to hire a consultant to study Idaho’s college and university system and look for potential cost savings.

Wednesday morning’s rapid — and unanimous — Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee votes do not kill Gov. Butch Otter’s CEO proposal outright. But barring a sudden change, it means lawmakers and Otter will decide on a State Board of Education budget that doesn’t fund the CEO’s position. The position appears all but dead, as Otter himself acknowledged last week.

Hiring a CEO, or “chief education officer,” was one of Otter’s top legislative priorities for 2018.

Otter requested $269,500 for the position, including a $200,000-a-year salary that would have made the CEO the highest-paid employee in state government. He also requested $500,000 in one-time money for the consultant’s study.

Otter has argued that a CEO would be a needed “change agent” who could find millions of dollars in redundant spending within the higher education system — in order to shift state money from administrative functions to scholarships or other student programs.

But from the outset, legislative budget-writers weren’t sold. They wanted details about how much the state could expect to save, and questioned the plan to hire a CEO before a consultant could complete a study.

That skepticism was evident Wednesday, as JFAC put the new hire on hold and approved $250,000 for the consultant’s study.

Before paring down this line item, budget-writers asked legislative staff to consult with other states that conducted similar studies of their higher education systems. For example, staff consulted with Maine — which supporters have held up as a poster child for the CEO proposal. Maine did trim millions of dollars from its higher education system during the recession, but only after hiring a chancellor to oversee academics and administration.

Based on staff research, Rep. Wendy Horman made the motion for the $250,000 budget.

“I am comfortable that this study will obtain the information we need,” Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said after Wednesday’s JFAC hearing.

State Board executive director Matt Freeman also said he was comfortable with the $250,000 budget.

“We did some calling around as well,” he said.

Now, the State Board budget request will begin to work its way through both houses. In the meantime, a CEO companion bill faces an uncertain fate.

Senate Bill 1303 would authorize the State Board to hire a CEO. That bill is still in play. At least in theory, SB 1303 could still pass both houses — forcing JFAC to come back and write a followup spending bill to fund the CEO’s position.

SB 1303 remains parked in the Senate Education Committee. Chairman Dean Mortimer says he has been talking to Otter’s staff about the proposal, and on Wednesday morning, he said there’s a “good chance” he will schedule a hearing. But with legislators hoping to adjourn the session in late March, time is tight.

‘If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen within the next two weeks,” said Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.

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