Taking the State Out of State of the State 

As agencies drop off public dole, expect less public interest, narrow reach

Boise State President Bob Kustra, on the eve of the legislative session, questioned the continued inclusion of the word "State" in the university's name, as students pick up more and more of the tab.

Idaho Public Television, state parks and a half dozen small agencies that assist workers facing discrimination and the state's disabled and minority populations could make the same argument after Otter's 2010 State of the State speech before a joint session of the Idaho House and Senate.

While Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter called for a "no-growth budget" next year, most agencies will see their new suggested funding level as a cut. The agencies listed above may view the cut as a form of state-sanctioned hara-kiri.

Now what does this mean for the average Idahoan? It means that Idaho is continuing to operate on a shoestring budget. It means that general fund appropriations this year will suffer more, with across the board cuts, on top of the holdback that was instituted in September 2009. It means the dissolution of roughly 400 government jobs, a $27.9 million mid-year cut in public school budgets, the first such mid-year cut to public education in the state's history. And that's on top of Otter's other first from last year: the first public schools budget to pass at a lower level than the prior year.

Otter eulogized the move in his State of the State speech: "I'm proposing that for the balance of Fiscal Year 2010, we hold back an additional $40 million from all state agencies and operations--including public schools. That is among the toughest recommendations I make today."

Otter also announced what he continually calls "consolidations" of state agencies, stating that we must avoid any "duplication of effort" or "inefficiency." What that boils down to is a four-year phase-out program for the group of agencies mentioned above that Otter said, in a not-so-veiled sleight, have "similar clientele" and "can rely on federal grants." The agencies include the Idaho Human Rights Commission, the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, Idaho Public Television, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Council and others.

Otter failed to mention these cuts in his State of the State message.

The plan, which Unda' the Rotunda has to assume constitutes the bulk of the "sweeping changes to the way we do business in state government" to which Otter refers, will save the state $2.4 million a year, according to Wayne Hammon, his budget director.

That's on a $2.5 billion budget. A savings of 0.1 percent.

The Department of Parks and Recreation, a cherry red line item in the governor's chart, faces a 100 percent reduction. The governor suggests that the employees, less a liquidated 25, be moved under the umbrella of the Department of Lands.

The state's universities have also seen substantial cuts. After the $15 million held back from the universities in September, Otter's plan, if accepted, calls for another $3.8 million in cuts this fiscal year. The already strained institutions are balking at what the state is asking them to do, which ultimately results in a rise in tuition.

Kustra and University of Idaho President Duane Nellis came out swinging against the continued leeway taken with higher education funding.

The presidents were joined by their lobbyists, former state budget director Marty Peterson of the University of Idaho, and former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb at Boise State, who agreed: Colleges and universities, with access to tuition and fees, have become a bank for public schools, prisons and health and welfare.

Kustra implied that public universities were heading toward being entirely cut out of state budgets, and that all 50 states need to make a conscious, joint commitment to the value of higher education.

Armed with a host of graphs and budget numbers, Stacy Pearson, vice president of finance and administration at Boise State, outlined the drastic increase in tuition for Boise State students.

While a full-time resident pays $2,432 per semester this year, the same student paid only $897 per semester in 1997. That same year, 78.3 percent of the operating budget for Boise State was funded by the state. In 2010, just 58.7 percent is covered by the state. Student fees have increased at 5 percent or more, sometimes even up to 10 percentage points, every year since 1997.

"With so many people losing jobs and going back to school, we can't slap them with higher tuition fees on top of that," Pearson said.

"What we try to avoid around here is not say, 'I'm not going to tell you, but I'm going to come and get your funds,'" Pearson said.

Well, this week, Otter put her and every other state agency on notice. He's coming to get your funds.

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