Otter calls for higher education shakeup

Gov. Butch Otter teased out a proposal Wednesday to shake up Idaho’s higher education landscape — and put a renewed focus on Idaho’s signature education goal.

“I’m going to ask the Legislature to structurally change exactly how we run higher education in the state of Idaho,” Otter told hundreds of political and business leaders at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho’s 71st annual conference in Boise.

For years, political insiders have looked to the annual confab as a sort of unofficial kickoff of the legislative session, hoping to catch a sneak peak of the policy debates to come.

Otter happily played into that expectation. But his speech served only as an appetizer, with the main course on hold for a month.

Otter declined to reveal details of the plan — saying he doesn’t want to “scoop” his Jan. 8 State of the State address. But Otter said  the change would be designed to help Idaho reach its “60 percent goal,” and encourage 25- to 34-year-olds to obtain a postsecondary degree or certificate.

“If we reach 60 percent, folks, that’s worth $400 million to our pool of taxpayers,” he said.

The 60 percent milestone has been Idaho’s flagship education goal since 2010. But in the face of stagnating progress, Otter’s higher education task force pushed back Idaho’s deadline from 2020 to 2025 this summer.

It’s not clear what Otter has in mind, but several recommendations have come to light in recent months. On Sept. 15, Otter’s higher education task force unanimously passed 12 recommendations. Then, in a Sept. 27 letter, seven Idaho business executives called on Otter to create a higher education CEO’s office in 2018-19. The business leaders said the CEO would be charged with streamlining operations, and ferreting out cost savings.

So far, Otter has declined to comment on the task force recommendations or the CEO proposal.

During Wednesday’s 18-minute speech, Otter said education would once again be his top legislative priority. He also put lawmakers on notice that he has not changed his position on Idaho’s sales tax on groceries.

“I feel very certain that’s the most stable and predictable (revenue) source we have,” Otter said. “It is the tax that everybody pays.”

During the 2017 session, lawmakers passed a bill to repeal the grocery tax, prompting a last-minute veto from Otter and, ultimately, a snippy Supreme Court battle.

“I hope we don’t have to go through what we went through last year,” Otter said.

A who’s who of political and business leaders attended the conference and Otter’s speech. Among those in attendance: House Speaker Scott Bedke; Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill; state Reps. Wendy Horman and Ron Nate, state Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking and Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Pete Koehler.

Otter’s 12th State of the State address will be his last. His third term expires at the end of 2018, and he is not seeking re-election.

Coming next week

After seven years of talk, and millions of dollars in new spending, Idaho’s “60 percent goal” remains as elusive as ever. In an in-depth four-day series, Idaho Education News looks at the issue, and talks to students contemplating life after high school.


Clark Corbin

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