Statehouse roundup, 3.16.20: House kills higher education budget again

In a show of defiance, the House overwhelmingly killed the college and universities budget Monday morning, creating a new obstacle for adjourning the 2020 legislative session.

By Monday afternoon, budget-writers had cobbled together a new version of the budget.

Monday’s action marks the second time in a week that the House has killed a higher education budget. On March 9, the House killed a slightly larger proposal, on a 32-37 vote. But Monday’s vote wasn’t even close; the second proposal died on a 23-47 vote.

The second budget incorporated about $500,000 in reductions. But the budget still exceeded Gov. Brad Little’s recommendation, rankling House conservatives who pounced on the opportunity to kill the budget.

The budget would have provided $307 million in general fund money for Boise State University, Idaho State University, University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College.

Idaho’s community colleges are funded by a different budget.

Once again, the House’s GOP supermajority cited Rep. Barbara Ehardt’s July letter to Boise State President Marlene Tromp. In the letter, Ehardt and 27 House Republicans urged Tromp to disavow a series of diversity and inclusivity measures, including Black graduation, Pow Wow, rainbow graduation and a gender-based violence community-response team.

Rep. Brent Crane

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, referenced Ehardt’s letter and addressed Tromp by name in leading the debate to kill the budget.

“She went right out and hired a vice president of diversity,” Crane said. “That was a direct affront to us, to me personally as a legislator.”

Crane also said university salaries are out of control. Without identifying the source of the information, he said he had been handed a graph that showed 42 university officials make more than $200,000 per year. He did not identify any of the specific positions but said the list did not include athletics officials.

“I think we need to go back to the drawing board and we need to relook at this budget and we need to tell colleges and universities we are not just going to cut half a million dollars here or there out of your budget,” Crane said. “We are going to get serious about cutting budgets.”

Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, simply asked Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members how long it would be before they could reconvene to write a new budget.

Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, attempted to save the budget that was up for a vote.

She said universities are doing their part by agreeing to a tuition freeze and participating in Little’s budget holdbacks.

“If we don’t vote on this budget we are harming students,” she said.

Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, a JFAC co-chairman, pointed out the Legislature cannot adjourn for the year without passing a higher ed budget.

Last week, both Little and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said the Legislature is expediting budget bills in an attempt to adjourn the session out of concerns for the coronavirus.

Killing the higher education budget sends the opposite message, Wintrow pointed out.

“We are in a health crisis,” Wintrow said. “We shouldn’t even be here today.”

JFAC’s response: splitting the difference?

About two hours after the House voted down the higher ed budget, JFAC hastily reconvened to write up a third edition.

This budget is smaller than the budget that failed Monday morning — slightly. JFAC trimmed a little more than $750,000 from a budget that divvies up more than $628 million of general fund dollars and dedicated funds.

And the budget still slightly exceeds Little’s request. The difference: $531,000 to offset a potential funding loss for Lewis-Clark. The money is needed to maintain Lewis-Clark’s career-technical programs, said Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene.

As he did last week, Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, urged the committee to simply pass Little’s budget.

The committee didn’t vote on the governor’s recommendation. Before that could even happen, Amador’s motion passed on a 16-3 vote.

If this higher ed budget does pass, JFAC’s work on the four-year institutions would be done for the year. But after the vote, Youngblood hedged his bets.

“I would say adios, but who knows what’s going to happen next?” he said.

Senate OKs education budgets

Meanwhile, across the rotunda, the Senate unanimously passed a budget bill to fund state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s office — but shift jobs and money away from her department.

The bill contains one major funding switch: moving 18 full-time positions and $2.7 million from Ybarra’s State Department of Education to the State Board of Education. The shift of IT and data management work is designed to place all K-12 and higher education data management under the State Board’s roof.

But while the Senate voted unanimously to pass the budget and shift the money, the proposal still needs to pass the House. And not everyone in the House is on board. House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, has written a bill to create a technology services unit in the SDE, overriding a shift to the State Board.

That bill remains parked in House Education. But the Senate-passed budget bill still has to get through the House — which has already voted down several budget bills this year, including two proposed higher education budgets.

CTE budget — As the Senate worked through a battery of budget bills Monday morning, they unanimously passed a spending bill for career-technical education.

The bill includes nearly $67.6 million from the state’s general fund. That’s a 1.3 percent decrease. Gov. Brad Little ordered CTE — and most state agencies — to cut their budgets this year and next year.

The CTE budget already passed the House unanimously, so it now goes to Little.

Teacher pay

The Idaho House approved increasing funding for teacher salaries by an additional $8.3 million Monday. The funding is provided to pay for the first year of Gov. Brad Little’s five-year, $223 million plan to increase pay for veteran teachers.

The $8.3 million was included in House Bill 637, a so-called budget trailer bill because it comes after the main K-12 public school budgets, which have already been written and passed the Senate on Monday.

If House Bill 637 is signed into law, that would increase overall public school funding by $87 million, or 4.6 percent, compared to the current year’s level.

Altogether, K-12 education general fund spending accounts for about $2 billion, or about 49 percent of Idaho’s state budget.

The House voted 60-9 to pass House Bill 637, which heads next to the Senate for consideration.

Master educator premiums

Working quickly without any debate Monday, the House unanimously approved a bill that would phase out the master educator premium financial incentive program.

House Bill 624 applies to the $4,000 annual MEP program, which was created by the Legislature to reward Idaho’s highest-performing veteran teachers. The premiums are renewable for three years, bringing their total value to $12,000.

Gov. Brad Little’s staff is pushing House Bill 624 in conjunction with House Bill 523, Little’s five-year, $223 million plan to increase veteran teacher pay through the career ladder. The plan is that House Bill 624 would phase out the master educator premium program as the state ramps up veteran teacher pay through the other bill.

If passed into law, House Bill 624 would make several changes:

  • It would allow the state to accept one final round of applications for master educator premiums this year.
  • After this year, no new MEP applications would be accepted.
  • It would also the state to continue paying out premiums for teachers who earned this last year and will earn them this year.
  • Then it would repeal the MEP program from law on July 1, 2024, once all the premiums educators earn have been paid out.
  • It would also set a Nov. 1 deadline for the State Board of Education to complete its audit of teacher evaluations each year.

Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, the Eagle Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said it is important because it saves the state money to ramp up pay for the career ladder “while still meeting the commitment we have made as a Legislature to our veteran teachers” who earn MEPs.

House Bill 624 next heads to the Senate for consideration.

 

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