Otter all but writes off higher education CEO proposal

Gov. Butch Otter is essentially giving up on one of his legislative priorities for 2018: a higher education “CEO.”

“(It’s) probably not finding the soft landing that I hoped it would,” Otter told reporters during a question-and-answer session Thursday morning.

This concession came only six weeks after Otter publicly endorsed the chief education officer proposal — saying the state needed a “change agent” to streamline the higher education system. During his Jan. 8 State of the State address, Otter urged lawmakers to support a hire that will find “tens of millions of dollars in efficiencies – savings that can be used for scholarships and new initiatives.”

But legislative budget-writers voiced skepticism from the start. They questioned how much the state could really save by streamlining administrative functions. They also questioned how the state would structure the $200,000-a-year job — which would be the highest-paid position in state government.

All told, Otter sought $769,500 for the CEO position, $269,500 for the officer’s salary and benefits, and $500,000 in one-time money, to hire a consultant to study the potential to find cost savings in the higher education system. On Thursday, Otter said he believed the Legislature could still fund a consultant’s study.

Technically speaking, the CEO proposal isn’t dead. The Senate Education Committee on Monday printed Otter’s bill allowing the State Board of Education to add “executive staff.” The bill doesn’t mention the CEO by name, but it would authorize the position. The bill hasn’t come back for a full committee hearing, and traditionally, legislative committees introduce a governor’s bill as a matter of courtesy.

Otter is not giving up on another higher education proposal — one that legislators have rejected the past two years. He still wants the state to create an “adult completer scholarship” to let older, nontraditional students return to college.

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Otter maintains that the scholarship will help Idaho pick off the “low-hanging fruit” in its quest to boost college graduation rates. But critics say the scholarship would simply reward dropouts.

“There are some minds up there that you simply aren’t going to change,” Otter said.

Otter has affixed the controversial adult completer scholarship proposal to a popular policy: the Opportunity Scholarship, a need- and merit-based scholarship that helps traditional students. Otter wants to add another $5 million to the Opportunity Scholarship line item, but allow the State Board to shift up to 20 percent of the money into adult scholarships.

Otter said he hopes the adult completer proposal doesn’t jeopardize funding for the Opportunity Scholarship, a program that isn’t keeping up with student demand.

During a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Idaho Press Club, Otter fielded questions on a host of topics, from health care and taxes to his own legacy after 12 years in office. He also fielded a question on school safety, in the wake of Wednesday’s mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 victims dead.

Otter deflected questions on gun control, and instead said teachers, principals, parents and grandparents all need to be vigilant.

“I can’t tell you that we’re danger-free,” Otter said. “I think we have to be on guard all the time.”

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