Statehouse roundup, 2.26.24: ISU ‘on track’ to address budget deficit, says new president

Idaho State University is “on track” to address its budget deficit by 2027, new President Robert Wagner told lawmakers Monday. 

A few years ago, Idaho State officials discovered a roughly $16 million deficit. A hiring freeze has helped reduce the deficit, and a series of committees are taking a “hard look” at budgeting processes, Wagner told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. 

“I am amazed at the work that’s being done,” he said. 

The university announced last month a deficit of about $5 million. 

Wagner also said Idaho State is taking advantage of public-private partnerships to expand health science programs. That was after Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg, asked how Idaho State is investing in health care programs to address a workforce shortage. 

“I, as president, am reaffirming our position as the health sciences institution within the state,” Wagner said. “We will continue to focus, continue to grow because we know there is tremendous need.”

Lawmakers also asked about: 

  • Diversity, equity, inclusion. Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle, questioned spending on DEI, including for 14 staff members. Wagner said appropriated state funds cover only two staff positions in the DEI office. The office serves an investigative role for civil rights complaints, a “very important” Title IX responsibility, Wagner said. “Our office and staff are not there just to serve a DEI function, if you will. They’re there to serve a very, very specific federally mandated function that’s placed upon higher education institutions.”
  • Idaho Launch. More than 100 Idaho State programs qualify for Idaho Launch, and roughly 2,000 seniors have applied, Wagner said. That includes a few dozen nuclear engineering applicants. “We are looking forward as an institution to meeting the state mandate of serving the students in these important academic areas,” he said.

Tromp touts BSU fiscal responsibility in budget committee talks

President Marlene Tromp lauded Boise State University’s fiscal efficiency in a Monday conversation with lawmakers, which was more tempered than previous spending talks with the Legislature’s budget committee. 

For every dollar invested in Boise State, students return a $2.50 benefit to the state, Tromp told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. And for every dollar spent on instruction, the university only expends 18 cents on administration. 

Meanwhile, the university has eliminated, or is in the process of cutting, 33 underutilized academic programs while its graduation rate has increased 39% in the last five years. 

“We are so proud to be your most efficient university,” Tromp said. “We’re always looking for ways to reduce costs.”

Last year, a tense budget hearing ended with many unanswered questions. On Monday, JFAC Co-chair Rep. Wendy Horman thanked Tromp for providing detailed responses. 

“Thank you for your efforts to prioritize and spend taxpayer dollars in a way that makes sure that the students are getting what they need,” said Horman, R-Idaho Falls. 

Still, lawmakers had questions about Boise State’s spending requests, including another $15 million tranche for a planned science research building. Last year, the Legislature approved nearly $18 million for the project that’s estimated to cost $120 million in total. Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle, asked whether lawmakers should expect another request in future years. 

University officials intend to seek donations and bond for the remaining costs. At 3.7%, Boise State’s current debt capacity is “well below” the State Board of Education’s 8% limit, said chief financial and operating officer Alicia Estey. 

“We have planned this out for years and have anticipated the need to debt-finance this facility,” Estey said. “We will also continue to look for opportunities for donations and to perhaps get some grant funding, as well.”

Lawmakers also asked about: 

  • FAFSA rollout. Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, asked how the rocky rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid has affected Boise State. Tromp responded, “I’m dismayed by what we’ve seen with FAFSA this year. It’s been incredibly delayed. The changes were designed to make more students eligible but, particularly for our rural students, it could impose new hardship.” 
  • Veteran services. Sen. Ben Adams, R-Nampa, asked how the university is investing in military and veteran students. Boise State has one of the only “comprehensive” veteran services centers in the country, where veterans can get help using their benefits, Tromp said. The university also has an assistance program that fills gaps where a veteran benefit doesn’t fully cover tuition.  “We’re looking for every way possible to support those who have served our country, to come to school at Boise State,” she said.

School bond supermajority measure advances

A proposal to relax Idaho’s bond issue supermajority cleared one hurdle Monday.

But it is likely to face trouble on the House floor.

The House Education Committee passed House Joint Resolution 2, a constitutional amendment targeting the state’s longstanding and long-debated bond threshold.

HJR 2 would relax the current two-thirds supermajority to a 55% threshold — if elections are held in even-numbered years, in conjunction with state or federal elections. During odd-numbered years, the two-thirds supermajority would remain intact.

Reducing the supermajority would give school districts a better chance at replacing or rebuilding aging facilities, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby. And despite a 2005 Idaho Supreme Court ruling, mandating the state assume a greater role in school construction, the state’s school facilities needs have been pegged at roughly $1 billion.

“It’s only a matter of time before the next court challenge,” Furniss said.

Monday’s testimony centered on need — especially in the face of the catchall $2 billion school facilities bill that rolled through the House Friday. House Bill 521 — supported by Gov. Brad Little, legislative leaders and education groups — would make an unprecedented state investment in local facilities.

Money from HB 521, and the property tax relief law passed in 2023, would help the schools address some of their needs, supporters said. And that, in turn, might translate into increased support for bond issues.

“This really could be the secret sauce,” Idaho School Boards Association deputy director Quinn Perry said.

Idaho Freedom Foundation President Ron Nate called the amendment ill-timed and premature, saying the state should wait to see the effects of HB 521 before chipping away at the supermajority. “This makes it too easy for local governments to incur debt.”

If school districts are struggling to pass a bond issue, there’s a reason for that, said Rep. Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood. “People are already being taxed to the point that they are barely making it. … I don’t think we have voter fatigue. I think we have financial fatigue.”

However, districts have no recourse, said Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise. “This is the only other way to make sure our schools are adequately funded, for the kids.”

But while HJR 2 cleared House Education Monday, the support was less than overwhelming. Five of the 16 committee members voted no. A couple of other committee members said they might oppose HJR 2 on the House floor, but voted for it Monday. “I do think it’s very important that we start the conversation,” said Rep. Dan Garner, R-Clifton.

When HJR 2 hits the House floor, the constitutional amendment will need a two-thirds supermajority to pass. It would then need similar support in the Senate, in order to qualify for the November 2024 ballot.

Bill would bar mention of tax relief on bond/levy ballots

The House on Monday passed a bill blocking school districts from mentioning tax relief funds in bond and levy ballot measures. 

Last year, lawmakers directed about $106 million to school districts to help pay down bonds and levies through House Bill 292. Some districts mentioned the new money in bond and levy measures, noting that they would have additional state funds to keep local taxes from climbing, even if a bond or levy measure passed. 

House Bill 574 would block districts from referring to those funds in official statements about bonds and levies, like ballot language and voter education material. 

“It’s making sure that the taxpayers have all of the information in front of them before they put themselves into debt,” said House Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Meridian. “What this bill does is make sure they know that there’s no guarantee of future monies.”

The bill says school districts can’t refer to tax relief funds in official bond and levy communication unless they specify the “guaranteed” dollar amount they’ll receive. Rep. Britt Raybould opposed the bill because there’s no definition of “guaranteed” in the bill. 

“Attaching this particular word…basically precludes a district from ever being able to make reference to a dollar amount,” said Raybould, R-Idaho Falls. “There is no such thing as a guarantee under our current distribution formula.”

Ten Republicans and all nine Democrats present voted against the bill. It now heads to the Senate. 

Resolution on civics education clears Senate

The Senate unanimously endorsed a resolution to emphasize the importance of civics education.

The resolution directs the Department of Education to promote curriculum that, among other things, highlights “the origin of the country and the founding principles” in U.S. social studies courses.

The resolution heads to the House.

Bill allowing IRI waivers heads to the Senate

A bill that would allow schools to waive reading tests for up to 1,400 English language learners is headed to the Senate floor.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved House Bill 566. The bill addresses English language learners who have been in a U.S. school for two years or less, and score low on the state’s English language proficiency test. If schools choose, they can waive the Idaho Reading Indicator for these kindergarten through third-grade students, and use a different test to monitor their progress.

The bill could provide schools with more accurate IRI data, since they would no longer have to administer the test to K-3 students with limited English skills.

“It takes a little bit of time to acquire another language,” said Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise, an elementary school teacher and a co-sponsor of HB 566.

House swiftly clears three education proposals 

The House on Monday quickly and unanimously cleared three measures affecting public schools: 

  • House Bill 580 would set a baseline of 10 days paid military leave for K-12 teachers. Rep. Matt Bundy, R-Mountain Home, said it’s meant to address inconsistent policies on military leave across districts, particularly for National Guard members.
  • House Bill 581 would clarify that teachers can physically remove a student from a classroom in certain cases. Last year, the Legislature passed a prohibition on restraining or isolating students as a form of discipline, but some teachers took the new rules to an “extreme,” said Rep. Marco Erickson, R-Idaho Falls.
  • House Concurrent Resolution 25 would urge the Department of Education to consider adopting “age-appropriate” curriculum, professional development and guidance that helps schools effectively teach about the Holocaust. 

All three proposals now head to the Senate.

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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