Key lawmakers seek to have a say on U of I-Phoenix purchase

(UPDATED, 6:40 a.m. Monday. Feb. 5, with resolution pulled from Senate State Affairs agenda.)

Legislators will try to weigh in on the University of Idaho’s proposed University of Phoenix purchase.

They are working on a resolution on the controversial $685 million purchase. The Senate State Affairs Committee had been scheduled to take up the proposal Monday morning, but it was pulled from the agenda over the weekend.

Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle

The details are unclear. A first version of the Senate State Affairs agenda, posted Friday afternoon, listed a proposal “relating to the State Board of Education and University of Idaho.” A draft bill isn’t a public document until a legislative committee discusses it, and one of the co-sponsors, Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, declined to share a copy of the draft Friday.

The Legislature’s role is also unclear. Acting as the U of I’s governing board of regents, the State Board voted to endorse the deal on May 18 — and U of I officials have maintained that this was the only state approval they needed.

The U of I and Phoenix hope to close the deal early this year. They got a boost on Tuesday, when an Ada County judge dismissed Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s lawsuit protesting the State Board’s closed-door Phoenix discussions, but other big obstacles stand in the way. The U of I’s accrediting body still needs to approve the partnership. And Four Three Education — a nonprofit affiliated with the U of I — also needs to go into the bond market to finance the purchase.

If the Legislature seeks to delay the purchase, or block it entirely, this would add one more variable to an already compressed schedule. The purchase has a voluntary opt-out date of May 31, which would allow the U of I or Phoenix to walk away.

While the details of the resolution remain under wraps — “I don’t want to adversely affect anybody that’s involved,” Grow said Friday morning — the proposal comes from two lawmakers who have openly questioned the wisdom of the Phoenix purchase.

Grow confirmed that Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, is co-sponsoring the resolution. Grow and Horman co-chair the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing panel.

In June, JFAC held a rare “oversight hearing,” and grilled U of I President C. Scott Green about the main selling points for the purchase: the promise that Phoenix could provide the U of I millions of dollars in annual revenue, and the assurance that the financing plan poses minimal risk to the U of I, and no risk to taxpayers.

To date, that hearing remains the only legislative hearing on the Phoenix purchase.

But that could change at some point during the session.

Click here for our in-depth coverage of the Phoenix issue.

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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