Idaho higher ed budget set with 3.5% funding boost | Local News

BOISE — Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities would see a 3.5 percent increase in state funding next year, under a budget set on a unanimous, 19-0, vote by the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

The proposed higher ed budget — $306 million in state general funds, $604.3 million in total funds — is slightly higher than Gov. Brad Little’s recommended 2.9 percent increase in state general funds. The difference is almost entirely due to the way that JFAC is funding state employee benefits in agency budgets for next year, which doesn’t follow Little’s recommendation to draw down reserves for a one-year savings.

The only other difference between the JFAC-approved budget and the governor’s recommendation is that lawmakers added in $50,000 in one-time funding for a pilot project on “open education resources,” which would develop low- or no-cost electronic textbooks for students in common general-education courses offered at at least four Idaho higher-ed institutions. The State Board of Education had requested $250,000 to launch the program next year on an ongoing basis.

Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, who proposed the successful budget motion on behalf of a bipartisan work group of JFAC members, said the work group “really thought this was a great idea to pilot.”

The state Board of Education had requested a 9.5 percent increase.

Like Little’s proposed budget, the spending plan for higher ed for next year doesn’t include funding for the new “outcomes based” funding formula the state board had proposed for the institutions for next year, passing over more than $11 million in funding requests related to that, but providing $3.7 million for enrollment-based workload adjustments, the existing formula that the state has been using to account for growth at universities. Little also proposed a $7 million increase in the state’s Opportunity Scholarships next year, in lieu of that outcomes-based funding; that’s in another budget that will be set on March 5.

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Also included in the budget is a $150,000 boost to create a new statewide dual enrollment registration system, for high school students taking college courses; and $887,800 to cover occupancy costs for new buildings at Boise State University, Idaho State University and the University of Idaho.

The budget still needs approval from the full House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they’re set by the 20-member joint committee.

Other budgets set by JFAC on Tuesday included:

HEALTH EDUCATION PROGRAMS. Lawmakers approved a 13.8 percent boost in state general funds for medical residency programs and other programs that help train doctors in Idaho; Little had recommended a 13.7 percent increase. JFAC added in $300,000 for a rural training track for family medical residencies, plus $215,000 one-time to continue funding Project ECHO, a telemedicine program through the University of Idaho. Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I would remind the committee that this is year two of a 10-year graduate medical education plan, in recognition of our low physician rate in the state of Idaho per capita, as well as the opening of a new college of osteopathic medicine in the state. If we hope to keep these students in the state, we need to have residencies here for them.” As of 2018, Idaho ranked 49th in the nation, both for the number of doctors per capita and in the number of medical residents per capita.

DEPARTMENT OF LANDS: JFAC set a $6.3 million general fund budget for Lands next year, a 5.5 percent increase, or $60.3 million in total funds, a 1.5 percent increase; the budget includes setting aside $20 million for state-funded wildfire suppression costs. The state’s account for that currently shows a $6.2 million deficiency. 

DEQ: For the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, JFAC set a budget that shows a 10.3 percent increase in state general funds, or $22.6 million, just slightly over Little’s recommendation. In total funds, it’s $68 million, a 1.7 percent increase. It includes full funding for the fifth year of phasing in the Idaho Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, in which the DEQ is taking over issuing water pollution discharge permits from the EPA; and a one-year shift of $1.5 million in pollution cleanup funds to the Triumph Mine.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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