Idaho’s colleges and universities are hurting in the pocketbook, and may hurt more, and the reasons are not all obvious.
At the University of Idaho, officials have been dealing with big budget shortfalls by encouraging early retirements and seemingly whatever other money-saving efforts they can find. But the crunch is on elsewhere, too.
That might suggest budgets for higher education, especially in a time when state revenues have been rising, should be increased, at least somewhat. But not, apparently, in this session of the Idaho Legislature.
The legislature’s budget panel, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, voted for a college and university budget that included about a third of a percent increase in state general funds.The role of higher education in the state’s economic engine does get pointed out by institution advocates, but often to little avail. If you wonder why pressures on budgets and for tuition and fee increases are so strong, this should give you a clue. But this year, there is more.
Usually, budgets proposed by JFAC are adopted by the House and Senate floors without a lot of debate. Not this time: The higher education budget was rejected on the House floor, without precise instructions over how to adjust it to make it more acceptable.
The reason certainly wasn’t that the budget level was too small.
In his debate comments, Representative Vito Barbieri of Dalton Gardens may have pinpointed the concern for many of the “no” votes:
“I think the problem is curriculum, and the bureaucracy that is moving that curriculum. … We’re talking about equity and inclusion instead of reading, writing and arithmetic. Why is it that university towns, every time they’re polled, show a socialist bent? It has to come from those that are teaching the curriculum. So the whole bureaucracy itself in my mind has already turned left, and we’ve gotta figure out a way to stop rubber-stamping these budgets and begin to send a message that we do have a say in what’s taught and we do have a say on who they’re hiring, for what purposes they’re hiring them. That’s my problem.”
Comments for his allies on that issue mostly seemed to align with that view. One of them said, “I can’t imagine the number of vice provosts that must have been hired by these universities when we’re talking about equality and inclusion instead of reading, writing and arithmetic.”
What doesn’t align with this view very well is a string of other comments the legislature received from outside: Not from Democrats or social interest groups, but from a collection of the state’s top corporate leaders.
About a week ago, top executives from Micron Technology, Hewlett-Packard, Chobani and Clif Bar sent a letter to legislators expressing concern about the legislature’s approach in this area, specifically concerning two bills on transgender issues, a subject that remarkably now is related ideologically to university budgeting. From the letter:
“We proudly talk about its strong and growing economy, and how it’s one of the best places in the nation to do business and live. Most important, we talk about the welcoming, big-hearted spirit of its people, and why our employees are so grateful to live and raise their families here. This is a well-earned reputation and these bills targeting transgender Idahoans puts that reputation at risk and goes against creating a workforce that welcomes all. Passage of these bills could hurt our ability to attract and retain top talent to Idaho, and it could damage Idaho’s ability to attract new businesses and create new jobs. With respect, we ask you to support all of Idaho’s diverse communities and reject these measures.”
That came on the heels of a letter from Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters which, while not specifically mentioning those bills, carried a similar message.
You wouldn’t be seeing those sort of comments if the issue at hand were “socialism.” Or about bloated budgets.
It’s about culture, and what kind of culture Idaho and its legislature will have going forward.