BOISE — Legislation that would help lawmakers punish higher education institutions for engaging in social justice activities failed after a rare joint budget committee hearing Friday.

Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, sponsored House Bill 153. The measure requires the committee to write separate budget bills for Idaho’s four public colleges and universities, as opposed to the single, unified higher education budget that’s historically been produced.

Giddings noted that the four institutions already submit individual budget proposals to the State Board of Education every fall, at the start of the annual budget process. Those budgets are then combined into a single document that goes to the budget committee for consideration.

“I’d say that creates an unnecessary layer of work,” Giddings said. “I think this (bill) actually creates less work.”

The four public colleges and universities also have unique missions and students, different fee structure and serve different community needs, she said. Having separate budgets would allow the Legislature to more easily evaluate issues that are specific to each institution.

The primary intent of HB 153, however, is to hold the schools accountable for their social justice activities.

Giddings cited Article IX, Section 6, of the Idaho Constitution, which prohibits any religious doctrine from being taught in the state’s public schools, “nor shall any distinction or classification of pupils be made on account of race or color.”

In her view, social justice classes and programs may violate that restriction.

“We have some required classes where one race is taught as superior to others,” she said. “That might be a violation of the constitution, so how do we hold colleges and universities accountable? I think by dividing the budgets, we can look into each of them individually.”

A dozen people testified during an hourlong public hearing on the bill.

Anna Miller, an education policy researcher at the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said HB 153 “restores accountability to Idaho’s public universities” by allowing lawmakers “to reward universities that stick to their core mission, and penalize schools that betray the public confidence in academia.”

The core mission of Idaho’s higher education institutes, she said, “includes protecting academic freedom ... for the purpose of advancing truth and serving the common good.” However, “our research shows Idaho universities have rejected this noble mission, and instead have increased spending on social justice bureaucracy.”

Examples of that bureaucracy, Miller said, include the University of Idaho’s Office of Equity and Diversity and its civic engagement program, which “is a form of service learning specifically used to get students involved in social justice and activism on political causes.”

Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, pointed out that UI’s civic engagement efforts include an alternate spring break program where students — including her daughter — have the option of doing things like going to Louisiana and help rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina.

“I know they do a lot of work with Habitat for Humanity,” Troy said. “They also do a lot of volunteer work helping raise money for the food banks and other great nonprofits we have on the Palouse. It’s important we clarify the areas we’re concerned about, versus other areas that are great opportunities for students to engage in while they’re in college.”

Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee opposed the legislation on behalf of the four college and university presidents, as well as the four community college presidents.

“We don’t believe the bill is necessary, and we don’t believe it’s good policy,” he said.

Satterlee noted that the budget committee already has the option to withhold or add money to an individual institution’s budget — as happened Thursday, when the committee cut Boise State University’s funding by $409,000 and shifted the money to Lewis-Clark State College.

Secondly, throughout his 20 years in Idaho’s education system, he said, the common theme has been for colleges and universities to work together for the benefit of students, rather than being in competition.

“Over the last three years, that’s been happening in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Satterlee said. “We’re building joint academic programs (and) presenting a common, unified budget request designed to help students be successful in their education goals. We’re working together to hold the line on tuition, to increase access and affordability.”

Now is the time to tell the four institutions they’re doing the right thing by cooperating, he said, rather than make them compete with each other for limited resources.

Following the public comment, the budget committee quickly defeated a motion to send the bill forward with a positive recommendation. Giddings, together with Reps. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, and Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, were the only ones to support the measure.

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.