Analysis: Higher ed faces a turbulent legislative session

Marlene Tromp has fielded — and fumbled — plenty of pointed questions from legislators over the past 4 ½ years.

What does the Boise State University president expect in 2024?

Boise State University President Marlene Tromp speaks to legislative budget-writers during a strained January 2023 hearing.

“I don’t know … if they could be tougher,” Tromp said during a recent Idaho Education News podcast interview.

You sure about that?  

Idaho higher ed has faced a hot spotlight for several years. And this year, the glare could be even more heated — for several reasons.

Let’s begin with the obvious. Lawmakers will start their session Monday with May 21 on their minds. That’s the date of the parties’ primary elections — and, in particular, an expensive and existential showdown between the GOP’s mainstream and hardline factions.

It’s early, but this year’s GOP primary looks like it could be even more contentious than its predecessors. Mainstream and conservative political supporters are pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the primaries. Numerous races are rematches, as former legislators look to avenge old losses and unseat incumbents. Every debate this legislative session — including the higher ed debate — must be viewed against the backdrop of the May primary.

Indeed, higher education is already election ammunition. In consistently conservative Bonneville County, a GOP investigative committee has lodged complaints against six incumbent lawmakers who are, evidently, not reliably Republican enough. Among their offenses: supporting this year’s higher education budget.

It’s easy to see where this could be going. In hopes of solidifying their reputation with the hardliners who are taking charge of the GOP’s infrastructure, some lawmakers may be eager to ask “gotcha” questions about higher ed, and reluctant to vote for the budget that bankrolls the higher ed system.

The 2023-24 higher ed budget — one of the bills that has caught the ire of the Bonneville County GOP investigators — passed over the objections of more than 40 Republican lawmakers. This budget passed on the first try — but in an election year, there’s no guarantee that will happen again. The higher ed budget figures to be one of the biggest fights in a contentious 2024 session.

Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa

The budget debate will go beyond the bottom line. Expect another fight over where the colleges and universities spend their share of taxpayer money. Last month, Nampa Republican Sen. Brian Lenney said he is working on a bill to outlaw spending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, saying the ban could cut nearly $4.6 million in staff costs.

“This isn’t just about streamlining operations; it’s about ensuring taxpayer dollars are used in the most efficient way possible to support the primary educational needs of our students,” Lenney said in a news release.

A DEI ban — which Lenney describes as an attempt to combat “the influences of identity politics” — is likely to have support on the Senate Education Committee, where Lenney and fellow hardliners hold a working majority. But the proposal could run into resistance in a more moderate House Education Committee; as we saw in 2023, the ideological gulf between these two committees is as deep and pronounced as the rotunda separating the Senate and House.

Regardless of how it all turns out, the higher ed culture wars are sure to resume this session.

And here’s an equally safe bet: The Legislature will not be quiet about the University of Idaho’s $685 million plan to acquire the University of Phoenix.

There’s only so much the Legislature can do. As U of I officials have pointed out, the university secured the regulatory green light it needed from the State Board of Education, which approved the acquisition in May. The biggest hurdle facing the U of I isn’t at the Statehouse, but it could be in an Ada County courtroom. Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s lawsuit against the State Board is scheduled to go to trial on Jan. 22; if a judge agrees that the board’s closed-door discussions broke open meetings law, the entire U of I-Phoenix deal could be in jeopardy.

Lawmakers have no veto power, per se. But the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is taking its due diligence role seriously, drilling down into a deal that caught the Legislature off-guard. And JFAC — which will ultimately have to write the higher education budget bill that gets through the House and the Senate —has some power of the pursestrings.

The U of I has touted the Phoenix purchase as a moneymaker, which could generate $10 million or more a year that could be “reinvested in strategic initiatives.” The U of I says, perhaps a bit optimistically, that it doesn’t expect JFAC to cut the university’s budget to reflect any revenue that comes in from Phoenix. “We would hope the legislature would want to work with us to be successful,” the U of I says in its “frequently asked questions” page on the Phoenix purchase.

Lawmakers are likely to demand details on the predicted Phoenix windfall — and they probably won’t be bashful about suggesting where that money ought to go.

Higher education fared reasonably well during the 2023 legislative session, but it wasn’t easy. Idaho Launch — Gov. Brad Little’s $75 million plan to provide financial aid for college or postsecondary job training — passed a deeply divided Legislature. A Permanent Building Fund budget, providing $72.9 million for campus projects, overcame resistance from the right. Fourteen House Republicans and eight Senate Republicans even opposed a $1 million budget to offset some of the costs stemming from the off-campus slayings of four U of I students.

That’s the backdrop heading into 2024 — and a tense legislative session that will serve as a warmup to an intense May primary.

For higher ed, the questions aren’t going to get any easier.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the topic, this week’s article was published on Wednesday, Jan. 3.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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