BOISE — The ink hasn’t dried on the fiscal 2021 higher education budget, but it may already be in trouble.

The joint budget committee approved the $630 million appropriation on a 12-6 vote last week.

Under normal circumstances, the bill would go through the House and Senate and then on to the governor for his signature. In this case, though, some lawmakers wonder if it has enough support to survive a floor vote.

“There have been concerns on the House side with colleges and universities and the issue of affordability,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls. “I think the governor’s budget ... acknowledged those concerns.”

Horman was one of the joint committee’s six no votes on the budget; instead, she supported the governor’s recommendation.

Although the difference between the two proposals is minuscule — just $1.4 million or 0.2 percent — the difference has significant implications for Lewis-Clark State College. It’s in line to receive $837,700 of the $1.4 million; that includes $613,400 in occupancy costs for the new Career & Technical Education Center — $306,700 more than the governor recommended — plus $531,000 in Enrollment Workload Adjustment.

Occupancy costs are funds the institutions receive to cover the operating costs for new buildings. The workload adjustment reflects changes in enrollment and in the number or type of degrees an institution awards.

Since full-time equivalent enrollment has been declining at LCSC, the University of Idaho and Idaho State University, the formula dictates that the three institutions collectively receive $988,700 less in state funding next year.

The governor’s budget reflected that math; the joint committee, by contrast, chose to shield them from the cut.

“This has a lot to do with LCSC. We’re trying to help them out,” said Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, who supported the budget committee’s bill, along with Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee.

“I think the workload formula is a questionable fit for LCSC,” Crabtree said. “It’s doing a lot of good things in our area, with its welding, diesel mechanics and nursing programs. It seems like a poor management decision to cut (more money) out of its budget.”

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, agreed. During last week’s meeting, he noted that LCSC has seen an average 1.3 percent increase in academic headcount the past four years, as well as a 7.7 percent average annual increase in the number of dual enrollment students.

Nevertheless, because the college can’t offer graduate programs and because it has seen a decrease in the number of associate degrees awarded, it’s docked by the enrollment workload formula.

“They’re doing good, but they’re being penalized,” Johnson said.

Horman, however, said sparing institutions from a negative workload adjustment simply allows them to ignore the consequences of declining enrollment.

“I believe the Legislature is complicit in not helping them right-size,” she said. “We’re seeing enrollment changes; we’re seeing fewer students on campus, while at the same time there are dramatic increases in online and dual-enrollment students.”

Similarly, Horman noted that a 2017 study found more than $18 million in potential savings, if the institutions consolidated some of their purchasing and administrative functions.

“We funded (that) $200,000 efficiency report, but we aren’t seeing any of the recommendations make it into the budget process,” she said. “Conversations are happening, but they’re not making it into the budget.”

Occupancy costs and the Enrollment Workload Adjustment — the two areas where the budget committee differed with the governor’s recommendation — have been contentious issues for years now.

The governor recently formed a working group to try to develop a path forward. The group includes the four college and university presidents, as well as Sen. Crabtree and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

Bedke considers this issue important enough, he appointed himself to the work group.

“It’s something we have to come to grips with,” he said.

Bedke wasn’t thrilled that the budget committee exceeded the governor’s higher education recommendation. However, he also acknowledged that the college and university presidents — all of whom have been hired in the last year — deserve some time to address the Legislature’s concerns before their budgets are hit.

“If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we can expect the same results,” Bedke said. “(But) we have a new cadre of university presidents, and I’m sympathetic to their issues.”

When a budget bill lacks support, it is sometimes pulled back to committee before it comes up for a floor vote. On the rare occasions when one is defeated in a floor vote, it returns to the budget committee to be reworked.

It hasn’t been determined yet whether the higher education bill will start in the House or the Senate. Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, the co-chairman of the joint committee, said there are no plans to pull it back to committee.

“Either it goes or it doesn’t,” he said.

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

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